David King/Courtesy UC Press
Colander and dal masher, traditional tools used to make dal.
Colander and dal masher, traditional tools used to make dal. David King/Courtesy UC Press
Mora dar chaval—plain dal with rice—is a dish with tremendous significance for Parsis. It may appear anytime, but it has to be eaten on any occasion out of the ordinary. You're supposed to have it for births, birthdays, engagements, wedding days (but not for the wedding feast itself), days of good fortune of any sort, and also, alas, when there has been a death in the household. The underlying lesson is that life cannot be led without experiencing both joy and sorrow in some measure, and we mustn't make too much of either, for both are fleeting. The second lesson is the beauty and value of simplicity. Plain dal sounds as though it might be boring, but it's something that everybody loves, and no one ever seems to get tired of it.
Dal to be served with rice is usually made quite thick, although it can be thinned to a soupy consistency and still taste good. In fact, Gujarati Hindus make a delicious soup called osaman, which is nothing more than the water that dal is cooked in, deliciously seasoned. To signify that there's always enough for an extra guest or two, Indians jokingly say that you can add a bit of water to the dal and everything will be fine.
1 cup red lentils (masur dal), husked split pigeon peas (tuvar dal), or mung beans (mung dal)
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/2 teaspoon (or more) salt
1 onion, quartered (optional)
1 green chile (optional)
4 cups (or more) water
1 to 2 tablespoons ghee or butter
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
2 to 4 cloves garlic, minced
1 to 2 tablespoons finely chopped onion or shallot (optional)
• Pick over the dal to remove stones and chaff. Rinse the dal and transfer to a pot; add the turmeric, 1/2 teaspoon salt, quartered onion, and chile, if using, along with at least 4 cups water. Bring to boil; reduce the heat and simmer, partly covered, until the dal is tender. (Masur and mung dals soften in about half the time it takes to cook tuvar dal, which needs a good 45 minutes to 1 hour.) Watch out for overboiling, even with the heat down.
• When the dal is soft and mushy, pass through a sieve or a food mill or liquefy in a food processor or with an immersion blender, which saves you the trouble of pouring and transferring. The texture of the dal should be thick, smooth, and pourable. Taste for salt.
• To finish, heat the ghee in a small skillet over medium heat. Sizzle the seeds, garlic, and onion, if using, until the garlic begins to brown around the edges and the seeds start to crackle. These sizzling seeds and garlic are known as vaghar in Gujarati, tarka in Hindi. Tip the vaghar into the dal and stir.
• Dal Soup: Dal without vaghar makes an excellent cold soup. I've served it with a blob of yogurt and chive blossoms, or snipped chives or green onion tops.
Note: In my mother's house, it was considered good practice to send dal to the table in a tureen with the vaghar floating on top, a last-minute affair, although the flavors have a better chance to combine if you stir in the toasted spices ahead of time. If you're having dal as a first-course soup, you can serve individual portions with a little vaghar poured over each one.
Excerpted from My Bombay Kitchen: Traditional and Modern Parsi Home Cooking Copyright © 2007 by Niloufer Ichaporia King.