DAL — the term encompasses all the lentils and pulses and is synonymous with the staple fare of Indians, be they wheat-eaters or partial to rice. Dal-roti and dal-bhaat are the basic foods that sustain us. What is common to the diet in North and South, East and West is dal, the primary source of protein for vegetarians. It is a pity that most of us are conditioned to treat dal as a child of the lesser kitchen gods. The lentils are always looked down upon as something inexpensive and lacking exotica. Ghar ki murgi is equated with dal. Literally translated, it does equal disservice to home-cooked chicken and the lentils. But let us not digress.
The present generation is only familiar with two varieties — the black/kali dal and the yellow dal. The black one has other epithets that enhance its status like dal makhni, dal maharani, dal bukhara, etc. It is prepared with unhusked maash/maah. The yellow annihilates the distinction between myriad dals that share this hue — arhar, chana, unhusked moong and urad, not to forget the unhusked masoor. Each one of these can be prepared differently to suit individual tastes. The roadside dhaba has compounded the confusion by putting on its menu dal fry. Put it simply, dal fry reduces, nay dumbs down, the subtle art of tadka to the lowest common denominator. Everything, from tomatoes, onions, garlic to red and green chilly, maybe cumin, are added for good measure in smoking hot ghee or butter in a frying pan and the pre-cooked dal is poured into it and brought like a sizzler to the guest. We have witnessed, once or twice, even a more elaborate murder of the pulses when some readymade dal masala is sprinkled on top. To add insult to injury, the beardless chef showers traditional wisdom by informing that this is a homage to buknu, a melange of spices that is used in Varanasi!
Our thoughts have turned to dal this week for two reasons. A friend gifted us a book on dal compiled by Pratibha Karan, a hostess renowned for her fabulous spread. Author of a marvellous book on Hyderabadi cuisine, this is her third book, and alas, despite the hype that accompanied its launch, it is underwhelming, to say the least. Neither the endorsement of the retired US ambassador to the UN, nor the ecstatic praise by Vir Sanghvi can redeem it. But this is not the place for a book review, so let us move on. In the past week, we were also treated to interesting versions of dal ‘plus’ by two friends. One from Awadh served shagpaita (dal with spinach) and another from Andhra Pradesh (now divided) made us slurp with tomato pappu, reminding us that it is not sambhar that reigns supreme everywhere south of the Narmada river and the Vindhya mountains.
We have great pleasure in sharing the recipe of shagpaita with our readers when the last of the flavourful palak (spinach) of the winters is available in the market and blending it with the lentils makes for a balanced, tasty, refreshingly different, dish. The split urad dal, also known as maah chilka, is not commonly cooked with spinach but pairs beautifully. Another variation is using unhusked moong dal. It is never split as it cooks more easily.
SHAGPAITA (DAL WITH SPINACH)
- Pour six cups of water in a pan. Add salt and bring to boil. Add the drained lentils and bring to boil again.
- Reduce heat to low, add spinach, ginger, green chillies and salt.
- Cover and simmer until the lentils are cooked and slightly mashed (the lentils should be of thin custard-like consistency).
- Uncover and adjust the seasoning.
- For the tempering, melt ghee in a frying pan.
- Add dried red chillies, stir continuously until they change colour.
- Remove and pour into the lentil and cover immediately.
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