Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Dal Queen

Dal wasn’t a big feature on the menu, when I was growing up. We had mushy peas, though, and that’s more or less the same, isn’t it, just without the eastern promise? What’s a few cumin seeds, between friends? Old habits die hard, and my first few attempts at proper dal turn into either pease pudding or lentil soup. Today, I watch an expert at her craft: the Dal Queen, whose masala tin I am unworthy to take a spoon to.
Since I’m sous-chef to her Delia, I prepare for her arrival by doing skill-free labour, such as chopping onions and tomatoes. I leave them trailing round the hob, in a flotilla of satellite dishes, just like on Delia. I’m very pleased with myself, until she says kindly, “We would usually chop the onion finer than this for the dal.... but it’s ok.” So now I can’t even chop onions. Dammit.
First into the hot oil, go the mustard seeds. When they start to go snap, crackle and pop, add the cumin seeds, and as much ground chilli as you’re up for. Let this sizzle around for a bit, but don’t abandon it. That way charcoal lies. We add the onion (magnanimously overlooking coarseness of inexpert chopping) and powdered coriander, turmeric, and asafoetida powder. (Helps digestion, that’s all I know. I can spell it, though, that surely counts for something? I look it up, for some retroactive wisdom, now I own a little pot of it. It’s from the parsley family, and it stinks so much, that, across the world, its common names mean Devil’s Dung - “Merde du Diable.” Given that, in its freshest state, it smells like garlic going off, whoever thought it’d be ok to pop it in the balti, in the first place? Very handy for Jains, though, who aren’t allowed so much as an onion to pique a tired palate...)
Back to the pan in hand. Add garlic, and root ginger, peeled, chopped, sliced, crushed, however you prefer to subjugate it. Then it all fizzes away to itself, until the onion’s transparent. I quite like crispy little brown edges, to the onion, though this is probably a taste born of necessity – onions, in my kitchen, always sneak past the required, softened stage, into something crunchy, when my back’s turned, usually when I'm rootling in the fridge for half a lemon to go in my gin and tonic. Cook’s perks.
When everything’s nicely got to know each other, add chopped tomatoes. Not as many as today’s hopeless sous-chef has chopped. Just some. Indian tomatoes, I have learnt, keep their shape when cooked, unlike home ones, which collapse if you show them a frying-pan. Put the lid on your onion-mix, and wait until you can see the oil reappearing, round the edges of the tomatoes. Now you can add your lentils, which you've already washed until the water runs clear. Add water, bring to the boil, and simmer, for fifteen minutes. Less water for a thick dal, more for a runny one – it’s not rocket science, lads.
While that’s all going hubble-bubble, you’ve got time to make chapatti. Tip a mound of wheat-flour into a two-tone metal bowl, dribble in a little oil, to soften the dough, and enough water. Less is easier than more, to correct, it’s always good to remember. Corral all the loose flour, squish everything into a ball, and give it five minutes’ gentle knuckling. Pull it into egg-sized balls (small eggs), flatten them slightly, and dip in more flour. If you have a marble chapatti-rolling-out block, and a wooden chapatti-rolling-out pin, now’s a great time to get them out. If not, improvise. Chopping-board, milk-bottle, whatever. Each egg-ball of dough should roll out thinly to a circle about eight inches across, but don’t get the tape-measure out, it's not that kind of a chapatti.
Now. Have you got a tawa? We have. Admittedly, it still has the sticky label on it, because we only bought it yesterday, in HyperCity. There’s no HyperCity, near your house, you can live dangerously, and use a frying-pan. No oil. When the pan’s hot, flap the first chapatti in, and watch. When the edges turn white, turn it over. You have to pat it, with a cloth, lovingly, and turn it again, and again. If it’s behaving itself, it will start to puff up. When it gets little brown freckles, it’s cooked. Take it out, with your asbestos fingers, and put it on that handy plate you’ve already got out. The chapattis stay soft, if you wrap them in a cloth. (You need a lot of cloths, for this recipe. Clean ones.) Then start again. The first one’s often tricky, while the pan gets used to the idea – just like pancakes, I say, supportively. This afternoon, though, the first one’s perfect, like the next eight, so we have nothing to offer hovering boys or dustbin dogs. Just as well, since both are in short supply.
The dal’s done. All it needs, is as much of the pile of sous-chef-chopped coriander leaves, as you can fit in your bunched fingers. This is comfort eating, big time. The Dal Queen says that, in India, they cook rice and lentils, onions and spices together, to make khichdi, a dish traditionally fed to invalids. We turn it into kedgeree - why do we have to add flaked fish and boiled eggs? I blame the Raj.
Nothing's weighed or measured, here, you will notice. Learning to cook Indian food, hanging on the loose end of your Mum's sari, everything's down to fingertips and intuition. The scales can stay in the cupboard.
So, anyway, pasta’s edging off the last-meal-before-you-die radar. Dal’s my new soul food. Next, I'm wanting to tackle aloo gobhi, but there's the small matter of onion-chopping, to sort out, first.