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10 Apr 2015 16:22
A bowl of bliss: The dhal served at Swad restaurant in Melrose Arch, Johannesburg. (M&G, Delwyn Verasamy)
Dhal, the benevolent soupy lentil dish, can refer to both the food and the pulse. It is a dish of boiled, spiced
lentils and in some cases they break down into a soup; in others, they remain
more or less whole.
The spices can include, but are not limited to, cumin,
ginger, garlic, turmeric and paprika.
The end result, depending on the myriad recipes, should be slightly soupy, slightly sour, sweet and salty, all
at the same time. You may also want to add a pinch of the foul smelling
asafoetida, which is said to ease flatulence.
It can be served at the Hindu
ceremony Annaprashan, along with rice and ghee, during which a baby is introduced
to its first solid food. Well-cooked dhal and rice is also often prescribed as
a dish for the ill or convalescent.
Before you start, pour the pulses on to a flat plate and check for stones. I haven’t found one for a few years,
but the memory of a shattered tooth is still with me. Then pour them into a
deep pot with cold water and rub them to loosen the dirt. Do this a few times
until the water is more or less clean.
Kripal Singh, the chef de partie at Swad, the Indian restaurant in Melrose Arch, Johannesburg, can make dhal with
his eyes closed. He says his family in Delhi make dhal every day. In the
morning at the restaurant he cooks up a big pot of oil dhal. Oil dhal is
actually called toor dhal, or split pigeon peas. The oil is to preserve the legume,
which you wash off before cooking.
A delicious bowl of dhalWhen an order for dhal handi comes
in, he’ll put a frying pan on the flame (this is a restaurant and he’s a
professional, so the flame is fierce — at home, use medium heat) and add a few
tablespoons of vegetable oil and then a pinch of jeera seeds, half a teaspoon
of chopped garlic, and a pinch of mustard seeds. He stirs, shaking the pan, and
says you could add a few curry leaves at this point if you feel like it. He
then adds a couple of tablespoons of chopped onion, a pinch of turmeric, and
the same of chili powder; another shake of the pan, and a few tablespoons of
chopped tomatoes and a pinch of salt.
The sauce is now starting to turn a
healthy yellow colour and thicken up nicely, and he continues to stir and mix
for a minute or two. Then, turning to the large pot of dhal, he ladles in a few
cups, and a little less than a cup of water, and the dhal is constituted. For a
little more heat, he adds another pinch of chili powder, and then some chopped
dhania and a squeeze of lemon.
Singh hands me a bowl of the deep
yellow dhal. It has a well-rounded taste, with lemony overtones; every now and
again you crunch through an earthy cumin seed. It’s delicious, and I work my
way though the whole bowl in a couple of minutes.
For a richer dhal, Singh says he
will work in a spoon or two of ghee — if you order it — and if you’re not
feeling all that well, he’ll also make you a thinner version.
A meal that will treat you kindlyThe restaurant also makes an
excellent makhni (butter) dhal. I’ve made this at home in the past, and finally
sat down to eat well after midnight, not taking into account the lengthy
cooking time of the small, black urad dhal.
Singh says he soaks this dhal along
with kidney beans for about four hours, and then, just before he closes the kitchen,
will pour a bag of charcoal into the tandoori oven and set a pot of the dhal
over the slow flame to simmer overnight. The next day, when someone orders,
he’ll fry chilli powder, ginger and garlic paste in a little oil in a small
frying pan, and then add a ladle or two of urad dhal. Then the butter goes in,
with a little cream, tomato purée and salt.
For a crowd, there’s a dhal recipe
for 200 in South Africa’s famous red Indian Delights book edited by Zuleikha
Mayat. It calls for, among other things, 6kg oil dhal, 10kg of leg or chicken
and 2kg of onions.
It is, as Singh says, “a little
soupy kind of thing”, and will treat you kindly all of your days.
Read more from Matthew Burbidge
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