The creamy, warm and fragrant Maa di Dal has the wholesome nourishing feeling slowly seep into me, with a tingle of beautiful memories: crisp winter air, travels and meals in dhabas.
The month of December was always meant vacations and travels. Other than Christmas. There used to be a time many many years ago, when I was wee little, that the school year ended sometimes in the first week of December. New classrooms, new teachers and another school year started with the new year, in January. So after we had our final exams we came back home free. Strings detached from school. Looking forward to the Christmas festivities and the travels.
My dad had to attend a lot of work related conferences through the year. Sometimes if the out of town came during the times of our holidays, the trip would often be combined. So a lot of times our destination was dictated by his job.
One such time we planned a trip to the northern regions of India. Mostly the Uttarkhand, Delhi and Agra and also some parts of Punjab.
Who knew then that food could make such a lasting impression. Of the little things I remember from that trip,(and there is not much I do), I realize now it is the people I met and the food I ate. I fell in love with Palak Paneer in Rishikesh, as we sat eating hot rotis with the most delicious Palak Paneer in the midst of Himalayas where monastic silence reigned. I still remember how there were only tiny bites of white soft paneer instead of big chunks of brownish fried ones.
I remember the yellowish urad dal with had with a simple tadka with the best tandoori rotis (we could see them being cooked in the enormous tandoor) when we stopped by in a roadside dhaba. Little stainless steel bowls lined part of the stainless steel plates. Dal in one, yogurt in another and small chunks of radish drizzled with lemon juice with little specks of mint in another, Pickle on the side. Oh the flavors of that dal!
There was was Ma Ki Dal. With Lachcha paratha dripping with ghee, onion and lemon on the side. As I speak I start to salivate. The Dhabas are a charm.
For me Masoor dal is comfort but Maa ki dal (Punjabi style creamy black lentils) is comfort with luxury. Cooked in ghee or butter, simmering with the spices for long hours and then topped with more butter that melts and spreads… It could be an everydal dal in a Punjabi household, but it will always be regal to me.
Maa di Dal is usually cooked with the urad dal with husk or the black lentils. Today we have a combination of Maa and Choliyan (or Chana dal). The process of cooking is pretty much the same as the Maa di Dal. Slow simmering and stirring to make it soft and creamy, adding of spices and then cooking even longer to have the flavors infuse. The Chana dal (the yellow one above) adds a bit more texture and a slightly different flavor to this dal.
I have experienced the cooking of this dal in a Punjabi kitchen only but a few times. The procedure followed is pretty much the same. This recipe is what I have settled down to after many experiments as the taste is the closest I have got to the real one.
If allowed to sit for too long after cooking the dal will get thicker (more like caking and cracking at the edges as you can see in the photo above). The photo was taken a few hours after I cooked it. I had to add water and simmer for another 10 minutes of more to get back the right consistency. It can be served later and stored in the refrigerator, but you will need to add water and have it simmer for a while again to get the original creamy texture back. So the best way to eat this is to serve right away after it is cooked.
A simple meal of Dal, Roti and Salad…
Maa Choliyan Di Dal: Punjabi Style Mixed Lentils
Ingredients: (serves 6- 8)
- 3/4 cup split urad dal with husk/black lentils (matpe lentils with husk) – split or whole
- 1/4 cup chana dal
- 1/2 teaspoon turmeric + 1/4 teaspoon turmeric
- 3 tablespoon ghee + 1 tablespoon ghee
- a large pinch of hing/asafoetida
- 1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
- 4-6 seeds of fenugreek or methi seeds
- 3/4 cup onion, chopped + some onion sliced in very thin rings
- 1.5 tablespoon chopped garlic
- 2 tablespoon minced/grated ginger
- 2 large tomatoes, finely chopped (about 1.5 – 2 cups)
- 1/2 tablespoon red chili powder or paprika or cayenne (adjust amount to taste)
- 1/2 inch piece of ginger, julienned
- 2 hot green peppers, slit
- 1.5 teaspoons of very good quality garam masala (store bought or homemade)
- salt to taste
- fresh coriander/cilantro for garnish
Traditionally the lentils are cooked long hours over low heat to make them tender and creamy. You are free to do that. However I have used pressure cooker to cook them until done and then cooked them again with spices.
Soak the lentils overnight or for at least 6 hours. Wash them until water runs clear. Add 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon turmeric and about 3-4 cups of water (it should cover the lentils and there should be a lot extra). Cook the lentils until they are tender and almost mushed. The quickest way to do it is use a pressure cooker. Allow the pressure to build up in high and once it does, lower the heat to medium and cook for 16-18 minutes.
In a heavy bottomed pan, heat 3 tablespoon of ghee. Add the hing/asafoetida. Then add the cumin seeds and the fenugreek/methi seeds. Cook at medium heat. When they sizzle, add the garlic and allow them to turn golden brown and then add the minced ginger. Stir and cook for about a minute and then add the chopped onions. (Keep the sliced rings aside for later use). Cook the onions in medium heat until they are softened, about 5-7 minutes. Add the chopped tomatoes. Add the rest of the turmeric and cook the tomatoes until they break down and are a complete mush. The ghee will start separating from the sides. This might take a while, about 12-15 minutes.
Scoop out about 3/4 cup of the boiled lentils. Puree/blend them in a blender until they are smooth. Set aside.
Add the rest of the lentils to the pan with the tomatoes. Toss them together so the tomatoes combine with the lentils. Add the garam masala and water (the final consistency of the dal is going to be sort of runny but will coat the spoon when done)- if the mix of boiled lentils has thickened. Add the pureed lentils. This is going to cook with the rest of the lentils and impart that spoon coating consistency. Cover and simmer for at least 15-20 minutes in low heat. I did it for about 40. The longer you simmer, the flavors infuse better. Once in a while stir the lentils so they do not accumulate and stick at the bottom of the pan. Look out for the water and add more if required. If the lid for the pan is tight enough you might not need extra. Adjust salt.
Once the lentils are done (you will know when the raw taste is no longer there and the consistency is just right and the lentils generously coat the spoon), arrange the sliced onions, the julienned ginger, slit chili pepper on the top of the lentils.Sprinkle the chili powder on them. Heat the tablespoon of ghee until it is smoking hot. Pour the hot ghee over the onions and ginger. Gently toss and cover the lentils. Keep covered for at least 10 minutes or until ready to serve. It is best served right away or else the dal thickens and you will have to add water and simmer it again.
Garnish with chopped fresh cilantro.
Preparation Time: Overnight (pref.) soaking or at least few hours + less than 15 minutes of chopping
Cooking Time: an hour
Difficulty Level: Intermediate
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