Ask any Indian, from a bin man to a Bollywood actress, what their favourite food is, and they will most likely say their mother’s dal. It’s the ultimate comfort dish: a true taste of home, and the Indian equivalent of the British Sunday roast. There are as many ways of cooking dal as there are Indians in India (a billion), and every community has its own recipe, which it supports as fiercely as a football team and which it eats daily.
Here in Britain, however, split lentils (or peas, or beans) are often treated with more suspicion than devotion. They lie in dusty packets in the kitchen cupboard, with little information to help the keen amateur make a choice. It doesn’t help, either, that what instructions there are can dampen the spirits of even the most enthusiastic cook: “Start by soaking the day before…”
But dal can be a joy to make. It can be both speedy and forgiving, because it’s impossible to overcook. My favourites for quick-cooking are red lentils, or masoor dal, which taste of pepper and earth; split mung dal, which make fantastic garlicky tarka dal; and toor dal, or split pigeon peas, which star in today’s recipe. They’re nutty little things and can be found in the Asian or world food aisle in the supermarket.
Although all pulses have their own flavour, they’re also great vehicles for other ingredients, making dal a very customisable dish. My mother’s dal, for example, is more a facade for her love of garlic, and she changes it according to the season: in winter, she adds more ginger and turmeric for warmth and to blow away colds, and makes it thick enough to scoop with a chapati; in summer, she makes it thinner and adds barely cooked tomatoes, which make it more refreshing and perfect with rice.
The first time I ate today’s dish was at a friend’s house in Mumbai. I had travelled two hours from the inner city to the outskirts, taking two trains, on one of which I had to share a seat for two with a family of five. After that, I had to cross a treacherous road, dancing between bullock carts, taxis and tuk-tuks in 40C heat. I arrived frazzled, but after a bowl of this sweet and sour dal, I felt reset.
Maharastrian tamarind and spinach dal
I like this dal to be a bit brothy, and the peas to still have some bite, but how thick you like your dal is really up to you. Most supermarkets have their own brands of tamarind paste these days; and if you can’t find fresh curry leaves, leave them out. Serves four.
400g toor dal or split pigeon peas
2 tbsp rapeseed oil
2 tsp cumin seeds
6-8 fresh curry leaves
2 green finger chillies, finely chopped
1 large brown onion, diced
200g baby spinach
1 ½ tsp tamarind paste
1 ¾ tsp salt
1 tsp dark brown sugar or jaggery
Wash the toor dal in cold water till the water runs clear, then put in a deep saucepan and cover with a litre and a quarter of water. Bring to a boil, then turn down the heat to a whisper and simmer for 25-30 minutes, scooping off any foam, until soft.
Meanwhile, on a medium flame, heat the oil in a large frying pan for which you have a lid, then fry the cumin and curry leaves for a minute, until they crackle. Add the chillies and onion, and cook, stirring every now and then, for 12 minutes, until the onion is soft and golden. Add the spinach, cover the pan and leave to steam for a couple of minutes, until the spinach has wilted, then stir so the spinach is coated in oil (this will help it retain its bright green colour).
Stir the spinach mix, tamarind paste, salt and sugar into the dal, and cook on a medium heat for five minutes, then taste: the sourness of the tamarind should balance with the saltiness and sweetness, so adjust until it tastes right to you. Serve with basmati rice and/or chapatis, pickle and a dollop of coconut yoghurt.