Let me start with a memory. I was in Manhattan one winter weekend many years ago, wandering through Chinatown, when I was struck by the similarities between its open air markets and various markets in Kolkata. Storefronts on Mott Street boasted wooden crates piled high with okra, stacks of dried fish and fragrant cilantro, a vivid contrast against the slush and concrete of a winter afternoon.
That night, I called my mom to tell her about my experience and she said, “You don’t remember, but when we lived in New Jersey, we drove to Chinatown every few months for produce. Back then, you couldn’t buy cilantro, fresh ginger, or even green chilies in grocery stores, not the way you can find everything in the supermarket now. Once every few months we went to Chinatown, and we were so happy to be able to purchase all of these vegetables and spices; they were so important to us. That night or the next night we would invite our friends over and simply cook for them and with them.”
Those excursions hailed from the early 1970s. We have lived in Chicago for many years now, and today, the produce markets in greater Chicagoland carry lemongrass, tomatillos, enoki mushrooms, cilantro, papaya, five different kinds of eggplant . . . my list goes on and on. Although I was too young to remember these trips to Manhattan, I do remember that my mother cooked elaborate Bengali delicacies when I was a child: specialty sweets and fried banana crisps, spicy blue crab that always left me wanting more and crunchy deep-fried coconut ginger shrimp cutlets.
As we grew older, our food habits changed and our family traditions evolved to accommodate those changes. I picked up French cooking as a hobby in high school and made my family eat various . . . let us call them experiments, the names of which I could barely pronounce. Over the years, I did learn how to cook a proper vichyssoise. My sister is known for her many desserts, a perfectly silken and perfumed lemon cheesecake, a moist carrot cake with walnuts and notes of cinnamon, and apple crisp so good that it makes us delirious.
But here I must shift and tell you about a dish unassuming and quiet. Amidst all this multicultural ruckus was a lentil soup we simply called dal. Every evening, alongside the rice, dal appeared. Much of the time we had mooshur dal– unadorned, creamy and flecked only with a parsimonious sprinkling of nigella seeds.
Dal is the name given to a dish that most closely resembles a soup made of lentils or beans. There are hundreds of variations throughout India, and it is a staple in most Indian homes, present at almost every main meal. Like soup, dal can be nearly homogenous, humble and plain, or elaborate, full of amazing stuff and complex. A simple recipe for Bengali mooshur dal follows:
Mooshur Dal or Red Lentil Soup with Onion
Tiny and bright, like orange confetti, how can anyone not love the red lentil? This creamy, nutty soup is a daily staple in many homes, red lentils being plentiful and inexpensive both here and abroad. Red lentils lose their vivid orange color when boiled and become a golden yellow, which is enhanced by the addition of turmeric. This dal is easy to make and carries both light and complex flavors well.
1 cup dry measure red lentils
3 tablespoons light olive or canola oil (or 2 tablespoons oil and 1 tablespoon butter)
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
½ teaspoon nigella or kalonji seeds
Salt to taste, approximately 1 teaspoon per cup of dry dal cooked.
¼ teaspoon turmeric
Clean and rinse the red lentils as you would clean and rinse rice. I use two to three cycles of cold water. Place the washed lentils in a heavy stockpot and for every cup of dal that you make, use 1 quart of cold water. Heat to medium and once the dal reaches a boil, turn down to a simmer and cook, covered, for one-half hour, or until the lentils mush easily when pressed between your thumb and forefinger. While the dal is cooking, foam may rise to the surface. I prefer to skim the lentils periodically but it’s not a necessary step. While the lentils are cooking, prepare the following:
Measure 3 tablespoons of oil into a sauté pan and once the oil has warmed, add the nigella seeds. Continue to heat the oil until the seeds release their nutty aromas, about 1 minute, then add the pepper and sliced onion and turn down the heat to low. Sauté the onions until translucent, golden and sugary. Set aside.
Steps 3, 4, and 5
3-Once the lentils are cooked through (you should be able to smush them between your thumb and forefinger), take out your whisk and vigorously whip the dal for a couple of minutes so that you emulsify it. For a creamier texture, a handheld or immersion blender works well. Use the immersion blender sparingly; it works quickly.
4-After the dal has been whisked/blended, add the sautéed onion mixture to the dal. The heat should be on medium-low. Add salt to taste. Add turmeric and add another teaspoon of oil or butter if necessary. Add water too if you feel the dal has become too thick for your taste. Simmer for another 10-15 minutes, allowing all ingredients to incorporate.
5-Finished! Serve in bowls with a fragrant slice of lemon or lime. I’ve served it as a soup course for fusion dinners or we’ve eaten dal, accompanied by rice, for a cozy weeknight supper.
Variations on a theme
Above all else, dal is versatile. A few variations that work well with red lentils are as follows:
- Just before step 5, add a fresh, diced tomato and a handful of chopped fresh cilantro. Do not cook, just stir well to incorporate.
- Substitute one clove of minced garlic for the sliced onion. Sauté over low heat with the nigella seeds and add to the dal as you would the onion.
- Add 1 cup diced raw carrots during step 2. Also try 1 cup peas or fresh green beans. Saute vegetables and add to dal as you would the onions in step 4.