Welcome to the first installment in our “Dhal of the Month” series.
Every month we’ll explore a recipe for one of the many, many regional Indian dishes that make prodigious use of lentils.
Though the names of the many lentil-based soups, stews, curries, braises, and potages vary from place to place in India, what they all have in common is their ability to showcase the mindboggling variety of lentils available throughout the country as well as the truly awesome number of things you can do with them.
Once, when interviewing a restaurateur about the food from his native city of Mangalore, he told me that a Mangalorean cook could make a different version of dhal everyday and not run out of recipes for over a month. I believe him, and would wager that you could go even longer without having to tax your imagination unduly.
Many recipes for dhals can seem superficially similar: lentils are cooked in water with a few choice aromatics—some spices, a handful of vegetables, some greens perhaps. Once they’re done, a sizzling dressing of hot oil flavored with even more spices and herbs—curry leaves, black mustard, red chillies are just a few of the standard options—is drizzled on top.
On the surface of it, some of the differences between the many different recipes can seem trivial—one cook chooses to finish her dhal with a seasoning that uses cumin while another leaves it out. A certain cook adds tomatoes and ginger to her lentils while they’re cooking, another thinks that’s sacrilegious. But these small gestures make a tremendous difference and cooks (and eaters) are fiercely opinionated about the way they think their dhal ought to be cooked.
It can be hard to get a clear picture of the full variety that so typifies regional Indian food. There’s so much of it that it’s hard to know where to start looking (and cooking). It’s one of the reasons I think dhals offer such a perfect entrée into the wonderful diversity of Indian cooking: almost every part of India, and every household, has its own homegrown version, and each one tells a story: about the people who eat it, the soil that it comes from, the culinary traditions that it springs from, and the ingenuity that went into fine-tuning it into its current form.
I hope you’ll enjoy reading about dhals with me—the thick and thin of them, the sweet, sour, savory, and bitter of them—in short, all the ins and outs of this very special corner of Indian regional cooking.
Try out the recipe for Hul Tovve, our first Dal of the Month, over here.