The editor tells me that I am liable to be strung up on a gibbet if I don’t produce a vegetarian dish this time around and so be it. That is, I am prepared to bow to his and indeed, your wishes. I have already confessed to being an unrepentant carnivore but I also have an abiding love for good vegetarian food and where better to find this than in Indian cuisine. This should not surprise us. After all, widespread vegetarianism is a relatively new phenomenon in the western world, whereas it has flourished in India for thousands of years.
My first hand knowledge of India is confined to a memorable holiday in Kashmir more years ago than I care to remember. However, I have been reliably told that dhal served with rice and yoghurt or buttermilk is the staple diet of the poor in vast areas of that country. Be that as it may, we do know that lentils have been eaten in India for over 4000 years and, I quote no less an authority than Madhur Jaffrey (the reigning guru on Indian food) to confirm the importance of the humble lentil in her country. She has this to say: “You can take meats and fish and vegetables away from an Indian but you cannot take away his dal and his bread.”
My father-in-law, a Scotsman, served in an Indian regiment in the last War. Most of his service was in the Middle East and I recall him telling me that at some juncture, he survived for a month on nothing but dal. Worse things could befall you and I think that is the way he felt about this particular culinary experience, which also tells us something of the nutritional value of the lentil.
Apparently all dried beans and peas and all legumes are generally classified as dal in India. However, I believe that we associate dahl with that bowl of mushy red lentils so frequently served with Indian food. In any case, it is that particular dish that I shall concentrate on here.
(To serve 4)
200g red lentils or masoor dal
½ teaspoon yellow mustard seeds
4cm fresh ginger cut into 3 slices
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
½ teaspoon ground turmeric
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 tablespoon of oil
2 green chillies, halved lengthways
2 cloves garlic, crushed
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1onion finely chopped
1 tablespoon chopped fresh
Let me first dwell for a moment on the ingredients, all of which should be stocked in your nearest supermarket and are commonly used in Indian cooking. These days, even fresh coriander is readily available all the year around.
As to the chillies, do exercise care. Unless, you like really hot curries, avoid the little ones. For this recipe, I use green chillies that are about 5-6cm in length. They can be bought in any decent sized supermarket and are often sold in packs with red chillies of the same size. And do try to use fresh chillies. They provide a hot flavour, which is quite distinct from that generated by their dried cousins ! If you are concerned about having to buy a pack of say, six chillies, and the others going to waste, (and I applaud any such sentiments; I abhor waste in the kitchen !) let me put your heart at rest. Chillies freeze wonderfully. Just bung the unused ones into your freezer and take them out as and when required. However, do try to remember to chop them (if that is required by whatever dish you are cooking) while they are still frozen; they are more manageable at that stage.
Place the lentils and 500ml water in a saucepan and bring to the boil.
Reduce the heat, add the ginger and turmeric, and simmer, covered for 20 minutes or until the lentils are tender.
Stir occasionally to prevent the lentils sticking to the pan.
Remove the ginger and stir in ½ teaspoon salt. (As with pulses generally, salt is never added at the outset of the cooking process.)
Heat the oil in a frying pan, add the garlic, onion and mustard seeds and cook over medium heat for 5 minutes, or until the onion is golden.
Add the cumin seeds, ground coriander and chilli, and cook for 2 minutes.
Add the onion mixture to the lentils and stir gently to combine.
Add more water if necessary, reduce the heat to low and cook for 5 minutes.
Stir in the lemon juice and season.
Sprinkle with the coriander.
Dahl freezes well and does not suffer from being re-heated.