My favourite part of an Indian meal is most often the dhal. Dipping homemade naan into the silky, slightly spiced comforting refuge of the tarka-ed lentils is to me a little like a Sunday morning under the duvet with the papers. Or at least what I remember it to be like.
All of my friends and family love curry. It is almost our National Dish; I would bet that most people have a curry almost as often as a roast. And other countries call our food bland. The beauty of bringing influences from all over is a breadth of view unseen or ignored by the tunnel vision of countries focused on ‘tradition’.
But dhal, or dhal bhat (dhal with rice), seen often as peasants’ food, is a joy. There are many types of lentils, and each family will have their own recipe. Mine is really an attempt to recreate many of the Indian restaurants’ versions I have eaten and also the –now famous in our family– dhal curry we had on a beach in Unawatuna, Sri Lanka. It almost melted my head, but it was amazing.
I don’t want that heat in mine because you need the counterpoint to any spiciness in the curry. But how the humble, earthy pulse sings when you treat it with love is, for me, a much more miraculous transformation than a prawn or ten, delicious as they are, cooked in subtle spices and coconut.
Dhal and ‘foolproof’ rice
Prep: 20 mins
Cooking time: 45 mins
The key to this is keeping it simple and relaxed. Start by cooking half a finely sliced onion in a saucepan with a little olive oil and salt until softened, then add one chopped garlic clove and cook gently for a few more minutes. Add a mug full of red split lentils in three times their volume of water, season with a little more salt and add a tablespoon or two of ground turmeric. Leave them simmering, covered for about half an hour, making sure the water doesn’t boil away. Add more if necessary.
When cooked, mash half up into a paste with a wooden spoon or stick blender, put the lid back on, leave for now and get on with the rice.
Put one mug of basmati rice and one and a half of water into a saucepan. Season well with salt, cover, bring to the boil then turn down to the heat as low as possible and cook for about ten minutes, or until the water has been absorbed. Remove the lid, cover with a few sheets of kitchen towel, replace the lid and set aside to steam in its own heat for up to half an hour.
To temper the spices use the following:
1tbsp black mustard seeds
1tsp cumin seeds
½tsp fennel seeds
1tsp coriander seeds
1tsp chilli flakes
½tsp asaefoetida powder
Heat some olive oil in a small pan and add the mustard seeds. When they start to pop, add the rest of the spices one by one and wait until they start to release their aromas. Be careful to not let them burn and add them, along with the oil, into the lentils. Stir quickly and cover. Leave to infuse for about ten minutes and serve with the rice, which you have fluffed up with a fork, some naan and if you are making a meal of it, a curry such as Keralan prawn curry.