I have been very eloquent about my love of red lentils in a lot of posts before. This is another of my favorite recipe from home – my dida’s recipe, a comforting dish fondly remembered and spiced with love and memories.
This recipe does not come with a name and I always called it dida’s dal.
Dal and rice is a comfort food in most states in India. Red lentils or masoor dal, as we usually call it is very popular in in the eastern regions of India. It is served as an accompanying dish to any many meal at least few times a week. I had posted a simply seasoned red lentils once before; a version which uses no onion. Dida’s dal on the contrary is flavored mainly with a lot of fried onions.
A big part of my childhood years had been spent with my grandparents. My dadu and dida (maternal grandpa and grandma), would live only a few minutes of walking from our home and I was fortunate enough to spent as much time with them as I did with my parents. During my younger years, when school would not be a full day affair, I would have at least one meal of the day with them. My dadu was a retired head librarian, a voracious reader, a treasure chest of stories and an ideologist. I learned to hold on to the big bound dusty books, dictionaries and thesaurus from his revolving bookshelf and it was him who encouraged me to read Moby Dick (I hated it at that time). He told me stories of his childhood, of the places where I never went but can see it through his lyrics. He talked to me of the constellations while we sat outside in the yard with the jeweled skies canopied over us during the power cuts. He also taught me to polish a shoe, or to perfectly part the hair! He also got me flowers for me simply because he loved me.
My dida was super woman. A school teacher during the day and a warm, loving and doting dida during the rest of the time. She was an efficient and awesome cook; her recipes ranged from simple homey comfort food to all the fascinating croquettes, cakes and cookies. They lived in a little house, and the kitchen was even smaller, devoid of any modern gadgets. The shelves were lined with spices, the baskets were always filled with fresh ingredients. Often times I sat by her while she cooked, talking of endless trivial things and asking questions. She introduced me to fruits and vegetables which I had never seen before. I loved going to markets with her, a few canvas bags clutched in our arms, walking through the maze of the bazaar and looking for the unusual finds – lotus seeds, a pale green fruit which was perfumed like rose (and I do not remember the name for it), shalook phool (an edible flower similar to lotus) and so many others. She would relive her childhood memories while she taught me. Here is a previous post with more of my beloved dida.
I remember having this particular dal with hot rice and a nice squirt of fresh lemon, and most of the days this is all I wanted. Dadu, dida and me had our meals together, and I would love to place a fresh green chili pepper on the white mound of steaming rice on my dadu’s plate. He always liked biting into fresh chili pepper with his food. The swooooosh! and the sizzle of the dal as it got tempered, rang in my ears and the warm smell of the spices and the onions lingered around the house as it does still now. Some days I would refuse to eat any of the other dishes she cooked, but she slowly succeeded to coax me to tasting each and everything on the table. I needed to post this, before the recipe lost that special touch. Over the years, the memories remain, but the situation and the adjustment to satisfy the taste of rest of the family slowly changes the essence of the real recipe. I have enjoyed some food during my childhood, rustic and wild and down to earth, and comforting which are probably now lost to globalization and the to the tunes of modernization. That special aroma and taste is induced by memory and can be made to live forever. Now I talk to my children of my childhood experiences, of people whom they will never meet, of places they will never go, incidents they can never relate to. But I can at least hand them down the recipes and the love of food.
Surprisingly I came across a very similar recipe in At Home with Madhur Jaffrey. Jaffrey calls it Bangladeshi Red Lentils and the ingredients and the process is very similar to the one I am writing on. My dida lived a few years of her early childhood in Bangladesh; that would probably be the common string that ties Madhur Jaffreys’ and dida’s recipe.
Red Lentils with Cumin and Fried Onions
- 1 cup red lentils/masoor dal
- 4.5 cups water
- 1 large onion
- 3 cloves of garlic, thinly sliced
- 3 red dry whole chili pepper
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 teaspoon cumin
- 1 tablespoon pure mustard oil (may be substituted with olive oil or any other cooking oil)
- 1/2 teaspoon turmeric
- 1/4 teaspoon sugar
- fresh cilantro/coriander leaves and lemon juice to garnish
Peel and divide the onion into half. Chop one half into small pieces. Make thin half moon slices with the other half onion.
Wash the lentils till water runs clear. Combine 4.5 cups of water, salt, turmeric and chopped onions. Cover and simmer till the lentils are fully cooked. Or use a pressure cooker, it is a much quicker way to cook lentils.
Heat oil in a pan. Add the cumin seeds and the red whole dry chili pepper. Once the seeds sizzle and the pepper turns dark brown, add the bay leaf, sliced garlic and the onion half moons. Add the sugar and fry till the onions are brown and crispy. Add the cooked lentils to the pan, stir to combine and simmer at medium heat for about 7-10 minutes. If the dal/soup gets too thick, feel free to add some warm water, to get the desired consistency.
Serve hot, garnished with fresh coriander and a squeeze of lemon juice.
Serve as soup with crusty bread or as a side with plain rice (the usual norm to serve dal in India).
Note: The cooked lentils gets very thick and mushy as it sits. If you are not serving it right away, you might need to add water and adjust the salt before re heating. I would suggest reheating the lentils on the stove top; bring it to a slow simmer with the added water and serve right away.
The use of mustard oil imparts a distinct flavor which is essential to this recipe; substitute with other cooking oil if mustard oil is not available or if you do not like the flavor of the mustard oil.