There are many shades of dhal and numerous ways to hull and split it, but as Rustum Kozain reveals, when the budget is low and the palate is in need of fulfilment there is nothing quite like a well-cooked, lovingly seasoned legume. It makes for “royal eating”.
Somewhere in the mid-1990s, I found myself in the Heart of Darkness – Bloomington, Indiana. Along with 40-odd students from around the world, I was on a “pre-academic orientation” programme run by the Institute of International Education, the main administrator for foreign graduate students receiving US state scholarships. Part of this orientation programme was a form of cultural acclimatisation.
The Americans seemed to not realise the reach of their cultural product. They were properly paternalistic. A few of us students found our gaps, floating barbs of sarcasm into situations, bunking when it all got too much. (I have fond memories of getting drunk on whisky and talking Armenian poetry with two Armenian science students and a Nepalese politics student.)
I had already choked on the regular US doughnut (very dense, very heavy) and gagged on the regular coffee (very weak). In the canteen of the massive Eigenmann Residence, I looked into the abyss of breakfast: “scrambled eggs” made from powder. One day, we were led in seminars by a university “cultural diversity officer”, telling us we should purposely look for and make friends with people of “different cultures”. Standing next to the diversity officer in the lunch queue and seeing a big heap of mush labelled “dhal” in the bain-marie, I thought I could teach him a thing or two about diversity.
“Do you know dhal?” I asked. “You should try it.”
“This is dull? It’s good?” he asked.
He was sceptical, I took a portion. His sceptical eyebrow remained raised and he spooned a small portion onto his plate. Goddamn, I was embarrassed. I don’t know who introduced it into the Eigenmann kitchen, but that dhal was indeed dull. It was bland. It had no salt in it and it appears it was basically some dhal cooked with turmeric. No onion, no tomato, no garlic, no ginger. No chillies, no cumin, no nothing. No man, how do you muck up dhal?
Dhal is a thick stew made of any pulse or legume that has been hulled and split (when hulled and split, the pulse itself is also called dhal), or from the whole pulse. The taxonomy is confusing, especially when you’re reading recipes by Indian cooks and buying in South African spice shops: sometimes brown lentils are called black lentils, but they’re brown and sometimes green. When they’re hulled and split, they’re pink or salmon coloured. There’s a red lentil that is the same colour as the salmon-coloured brown dhal. The mung has a green hull, the dhal from that bean is yellow.
It is so that one person’s mung bean is another’s moong dhal. Generally in curried form, there are many ways to skin a lentil and make your dhal. Depending on the lentil/dhal, the spices used and the sequence of their magicking, the dishes are called all sorts of names. I call it all dhal. As a kid, I liked my mom’s dhal with mutton (fun fact: in India, when people say “mutton”, they mean “goat”). You make your basic curry, add a cup of dhal, lots of water and cook for a long time until the dhal softens and thickens to a soupy consistency. Somewhere in that time you add your meat.
But dhal really shines as a vegetarian food or as an austerity food. When the budget is low, dhal is royal eating. Onion, tomatoes, ginger, garlic, some spices, a cup of lentils and you end up with a pot of thick, silky nutrition. Serve it with rice, eat with your hands. Thicken it a bit more and eat it with roti. Please, not roti and rice. Use your hands.
Of late I have been drawn to using a tarka or vagaar (I know not the linguistic vagaries). You cook the shit out of your lentils with some of your spices (say some minced ginger, some turmeric, some ground coriander, salt), then, towards the end of cooking you make and add your tarka, translated as “seasoning”.
But this seasoning is no shake of the salt and pepper pots. This is a force of magic. Taste your dhal just before it’s finished. Now, in some hot oil or ghee (but not too hot), fry for a few minutes some thinly sliced onion, shards of dry red chillies, a teaspoon of cumin seeds, half a teaspoon of mustard seeds, maybe some slivers of garlic. Yes, why not add a pod or two of cardamom? Add this, oil and all, to your dhal. Now taste that dhal again. See what I mean?
Not a vegetarian but austerity is biting? Have a chicken carcass in your freezer from the last time you disjointed one for the jollof rice? Why not add it to your dhal (before tarkanising) to add that chicken umami? Cook it to bits in the dhal. People talk about chicken soup for the bloody soul, but this… this is reincarnation.
Chicken umami not good enough? How about some haleem?
Haleem is generally considered part of another branch (soup, proper) of dhal cooking. But I think it’s all part of a piece, and haleem is the crown prince of dhal. Made with several dhals – gram dhal (the hulled and split chickpea) and toor dhal (also called oil dhal, from the pigeon pea) seem key, but I use whatever I have and bulk it up with brown lentils proper – it is cooked for hours with beef and soup bones. I use shin. At some point you take out the bones and keep on cooking until the beef has disintegrated and the broth has become rich like velvet. When you lift a spoon of it, gloopy tentacles should droop from the spoon. Add your tarka or garum, cook for ten more minutes and serve. You will once again believe in God.
This story features in the Chronic (April 2016), an edition in which we explore the tensions between reform and revolution, and decolonisation and the neoliberal order in the academy, through the lens of history and via the alternate education paradigms based in indigenous knowledge systems, and also arising from South Africa’s radical anti-apartheid struggle.