Take a pulse: eating in

Aromatic, spicy, and sometimes enriched with butter and cream, Michael Bateman praises the versatility of dal, a food enjoyed by India's rich and poor
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The Independent Culture
IRRESPECTIVE of caste, wealth and geography, dal - the hulled and split version of various pulses (lentils, beans and peas) - is the food most commonly eaten in India. Some 800,000 people eat it every day. For India's poor, dal is a staple; a thin gruel to stir into their daily diet of boiled rice. But the well-to-do also consider it an essential element of every meal, though it is usually prepared in more sumptuous ways, often with butter and cream.

The range and variety of Indian pulse dishes shames our European efforts. Dal may sound humble, but the best dals, perfumed, spicy and rich, are worthy of comparison to the greatest dishes in the world. In Britain we have little to show besides traditional pease pudding (made with split yellow peas) and the mushy peas of the north (made with dried green peas). True, it is now fashionable for top restaurants to parade the tiny grey- green Puy lentil from France but, on the whole, we tend to think of pulses as second-best to meat.

The Indians do not. They lavish their skills on them, and, rather fittingly, the European lentil is about the only one the Indians don't use (see guide below). Since half the population is vegetarian, it is fortunate that the combination of rice and pulses is a nutritious one and contains all the amino-acids which make up a complete protein.

There are approximately 3,000 recipes for cooking dal, says Namita Panjabi, owner of Chutney Mary, the renowned Indian restaurant opposite Stamford Bridge in south-west London. In Bombay her mother's cook, Rama, who is from Uttar Pradesh, makes a different dal dish every day for four months without once repeating a recipe. That is some 120 different dishes.

This is a world apart from the high street curry house. Chutney Mary is a showcase for Indian regional cooking and Panjabi's chefs come from five key centres: Delhi, Madras, Bombay, Goa and Kerala. There is a sharp divide between north and south. The chefs from the south never touch the ingredients of the north (tomatoes and dairy products, butter and cream), while those from the north never handle mustard seeds, red chillies, coconut, tamarind or curry leaves.

Dal may be cooked to any of three desired textures: soupy; a smooth puree; or boiled down until quite dry. These are the bases on which each dish will be built. A simple combination of fried spices (mustard seed, cumin, coriander, chilli powder, garlic) may be added, or a complex mixture of fried onions, garlic, fresh ginger, tempered spices and vegetables.

The first step to cooking a dal is to understand the logical order in which the stages unfold, says Panjabi. So I take my place in her modern kitchens, breathing in a hazy cloud of intense aromas (ginger, clove, cinnamon, coriander and chillies), to watch her skilled chefs at work. They swiftly demonstrate five distinct dals using different pulses. The quickest and easiest dals are made with masoor, such as the Kerala home- style dal (illustrated right).

The first step is usually to soak the pulses overnight. Then they are well-covered with water and cooked (without salt) until tender for about an hour, usually with some flavouring such as cinnamon or bay leaf, and almost always with pungent yellow turmeric powder.

"Turmeric is regarded as an antiseptic," Panjabi explains. Ayurvedic teachings, which ascribe medicinal and other properties to every spice and foodstuff, form the basis of Indian cooking. For example, the Indian word bain-gan, from which we derive the word aubergine means "a food of no virtue". No medicinal worth, at any rate.

The chefs start by frying spices rapidly in coconut oil or ghee (clarified butter) to remove their raw flavour. Then the heat is lowered. "This is in order to mellow down the flavours," Panjabi says. A progression of spices is added to create layers of flavour and then the liquid element, such as chopped tomato, stock and coconut cream.

The dal is finished by emptying the pan of tempered spices into the saucepan of cooked lentils, off the heat. It is then covered and left to stand for 10 minutes ("to provide the bouquet") before stirring the mixture together.

BEGINNER'S GUIDE TO DAL

These are the five most common. Two need no pre-soaking, the others should be soaked for 12 hours, then simmered until soft (about an hour).

RED LENTILS (masar or masoor dal). No pre-soaking. Cook quickly to a puree in half an hour. Thin texture.

YELLOW LENTILS (toover, toor or arhar dal). Makes a thicker, creamier puree. No pre-soaking. Cook for one hour.

GREEN MOONG DAL (same as the Chinese green mung bean). Hulled and split. Pre-soak and cook for one hour. This is the dal used in the popular dish khicheree, forerunner of the kedgeree modified by the British (to include fish).

BLACK GRAM BEAN (urad dal). Hulled, it is creamy white. Pre-soak and cook for one hour. Urad dal is also made into flour used in Indian snacks, poppadoms and batters (for crispy dhosa pancakes stuffed with spicy potato).

YELLOW, SPLIT CHICKPEAS (channa or chana dal). Hulled and split. Pre- soak and cook for one hour.

A new comprehensive book on Indian food, Classic Indian Vegetarian Cookery by Julie Sahni, has just been published (Grub Street pounds 20), a companion book to the excellent Classic Indian Cookery by the same author (also Grub Street pounds 20).

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