The 3 Bean Posts – #2 Lentils: a debate in dal
One of my roommates is a life-long vegetarian. After some debate we’ve decided to call him “Mango Lassi Man” (or MLM for short). This is partially due to his making mango lassis every night of mango season and partially because he painted his room florescent mango. Either way it is strange to me that I have made no serious mention of him earlier on this blog as he and I share in many ways a humor-based food relationship. You see he has been a vegetarian every day of his life, it’s rare that he ever even eats egg, and because if this I love to tell him about the amazing world of carnivores.
It all began just after he moved in. I don’t remember what I was cooking, but he asked me the oddest question about bacon…
He wanted to know something about when they made bacon. Made bacon? He was confused. No no, he went on… when they make bacon, you know, when they take layers of fat and meat and press them together to make bacon. To say I found this amusing would be an understatement. I felt bad that I laughed outright. He was my new roommate – would he be offended that I laughed at him? Nope. He was so sincere about his question that it never seemed to phase him that it was funny to ask. I explained bacon. He never lived it down. We’ve both happily discussed the world of meat with fascination ever since.
Having a vegetarian in the house has influenced a lot of things about my kitchen. Not only do we keep separate cutting boards and utensils for vegetarian uses only, but I now rarely cook meat at home (unless of course it’s bacon which is good in just about everything). For as much as you’d expect me to be the big cook in the house (and believe me before he moved in I thought I would be too), and as much as he considers himself a bachelor who doesn’t really cook, every night he’s in there methodically making the kitchen smell like spice combinations I find I don’t particularly enjoy.
I traveled to India a few years ago. It is such an intensely beautiful and alluring place full of extremes of every kind. I was bedridden with food poisoning for my first 3 days in the country (if you can’t drink the water don’t let your friends feed you seafood). My friend’s mother-in-law was worried I would die, but once I was back on my feet I had the most glorious and dangerous adventures wandering through the northern regions of the land of mystery.
Other than the realized fear of getting sick, it never occurred to me that a month eating Indian food wouldn’t agree with me. Prior to traveling there I think my experience with their cuisine was limited to chicken tikka masala (America’s most popular Indian dish) and samosas (potato stuffed breads). A few weeks into my journey, while being as stuffed full of food as possible at all times (the only polite way to treat a guest), my friend’s mother determined that I don’t like dishes with turmeric in them. This discovery made my trip much more enjoyable, but I was tired of the food long before I left. So tired, in fact, that it took me over 3 years before I would eat Indian food again. Sadly that meant that I would unfairly not find my roommate’s cooking as inspiring as we would have hoped.
MLM makes dal (also spelled Dahl or Daal, or Dhal) to eat almost every day. The most basic dal is simply cooked lentils. As beans and legumes take a logically starring role in MLM’s diet the combination of dal and brown rice make a great foundation for him. I had only ever tried to make dal once before he moved into my house. To me dal was a lentil dip almost, like the thickness of hummus (what I later discovered was just a northern Indian style of dal). His dal was smooth and almost soupy, perfect for mixing into your rice, while mine was something best eaten with roti or pitas. He rarely adds seasonings of any kind to his dal as he’ll also be adding spicy vegetables to his meal. For as much as he loved it I wasn’t finding it a very motivating muse.
That was before Auntie arrived. Auntie is MLM’s mother and she arrived in our lives without much fanfare or even preparation on our part. MLM was having some minor shoulder surgery (which thankfully went very well) and Auntie was coming to look after him while he was going to be laid up for a week. Not only was she the most lovely and sweet house guest you could ever ask for, but suddenly the kitchen was wafting with romantic, enticing smells of spices and exotic foods. We were enchanted by her and she promised to teach us how to make some of her dishes before the week was out.
She worked her way gracefully through the kitchen as she made dish after dish with no recipe or guide other than her memories, intuition for measurements and taste. She would call me over when it was time to see the next step and take my hand as she explained the process. It made her self-conscious that I wanted to take photos of the process, but when I promised it would just be her hands she relaxed and didn’t change into a more formal dress. A spoon of this and a dash of that, each spice being added at it’s own unique and proper time, she reminded me a bit of a chili master making their secret recipe. It was all so simple but made with such an instinctual delicate hand. It smelled rustic while it was simple, hearty and filling, but sophisticated and layered with complexity as each step and spice was added.
Even if I could re-create her recipes (which could not be done without copious notes) I think I would still lack her intuition. She made even her most simple dish a creation worth trying for. Watching them come together, from simple ingredients with no seasonings in sight to bright and flavorful dishes full of wondrous spice mixes, made me realize that even if I don’t want to eat Indian all the time, there is a whole world of inspiration to be found in their unique cuisine and culture.
Auntie’s dal make take too much specific skill for me (there are no measurements in her recipe), but I have tried this recipe for a northern dal that I’ve enjoyed very much. Hope you find it inspiring.
Spicy Northern Red Lentil Dal (adapted from Cooking Light Magazine)
- 2 cups low sodium vegetable broth
- 1 cup dried small red lentils
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
- 1 large onion (diced)
- 2 cloves garlic (minced)
- 1 teaspoon yellow mustard seeds
- 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper (I like it spicy and get heavy handed on this)
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 teaspoon ground turmeric (I go a little lighter on this one)
- 1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste
- 1/2 cup coconut milk ( If you don’t have this in the house use more broth. It’s different but still delicious)
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 2 teaspoons fresh lime juice
To be completely honest this recipe will burn your eyes and make you choke from toasting the dry spices, but once you eat it you will forget the pain and want to make it again.
First things first – bring your lentils to a boil in your broth, then simmer for 10 minutes or until softened. Take them off the heat and set aside covered while you get to the eye burning part.
Heat your oil in a large (preferably nonstick) frying pan over medium heat. Add onion, garlic, mustard seeds, and red pepper, and cook 5 minutes or until onions are tender and seeds begin to pop, stirring constantly even though your eye are starting to water. Add cumin, turmeric, coriander, and black pepper; cook 3 minutes you will be fully crying but keep stirring constantly. Add tomato paste, which will start to ease the burning eyes problem and cook 3 more minutes, again stirring constantly. Add lentils, coconut milk, and salt; cook 3 minutes, stirring frequently. Remove from heat before adding the lime juice, then let the whole thing cool off to about room temperature to serve.
I like it with pita chips like a hummus alternative more than a dal you serve with rice, but if you’re on MLM’s side of the debate go ahead and make your dal with more liquid so you can spoon it over rice.
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