Inspired by a story done by an Indian fellow journalist on how dal is such an intrinsic part of our diet, and how much more one realizes it when living abroad (she’s based in the US), I decided to delve a little further and find out more about this slightly underrated ingredient. Well, it is clearly a mainstay of most meals across the country, but the interesting part of the lentil story is that while we think lentils are an Indian staple, the truth is they probably came to us way after a lot of other civilisations.
I remember eating a simple boiled dish of pui lentils (masoor dal), and a delicious and quite an elaborate one – gnocchi pasta & chickpea with a wonderful sauce in a small restaurant in Spoletto (Italy), in the same meal a few years ago. Both were brilliant, and that actually opened my eyes to the fact that lentils and pasta are a traditional pairing in Italian cooking and they are as important a part of Italian food as pasta and pizza. Lebanese love them too (humus and falafel), Egyptians have their own for of khichri called Koshari. Clearly lentils are a centerpiece ingredient still in many cuisines around the world.
In India, of course, they are omnipresent. A foodie friend tells me that in Bengali cuisine the lentils begin appearing right from breakfast by way of dal puris, and a daal bhaatey (muslin pouch of lentils boiled with rice with a spoon of ghee or mustard oil, a pinch of salt and a green chilli) is an extremely common and popular lazy day luncheon. Bihar swears by ghugni (black gram or dried yellow/white peas cooked in a gravy) and sattu – powdered baked gram (sattu stuffed roti anyone!), and everyone has surely tasted Rajasthan’s tasty gatte ki subzi, made with besan and dal panchmali. Similarly the kadi and khati meethi daal made with toor daal (arhar) is a staple everyday dish eaten by Gujarati’s wherever they live, and show me one Punjabi household that doesn’t cook rajma masala at least once every week, besides their world famous maa ki daal (black dal with a generous tadka of butter and cream). And chole bhature is of course a permanent mention in checklists that list foods to eat before you die, so is a well-made khichri, which every household makes differently.
Lentils actually are amazingly versatile; when traveling to Jaipur you must have had besan chakki, and in Gujarat most of the snacks (known as farsaan) are made with dals – dhokla, khandvi, khaman, dal kachori (stuffed with urad dal) and mathiya papad, a crispy delicacy made with urad dal flour and mathiya dal flour (looks like moong dal). Cut to Mumbai, their very famous mung dal wada and missal pao (made from a mix of curried sprouted lentils) are everyone’s favourite snacks, and so is puran poli made with jaggery and yellow gram dal, a desert loved as much as the dal halwa is loved up north. Papads, delicious Mangalorean chutney made with taute (large cucumber) and tempering with dals (do you think upma will be even half as exciting without the crunchy bits of dal?) are other inventive uses.
I am all for them in fact. They are a great source of protein (particularly for vegetarians), and packed with lots of other essential nutrients and antioxidants besides of course being super tasty! So I say continue to enjoy them to the fullest! Whichever way you like them!
Kavita Devgan is a Nutritionist, Weight Management Consultant and Health Writer based in Delhi. She is also the author of Don’t Diet! 50 Habits of Thin People (Jaico). She contributes to the column Kavita’s Korner every Wednesday for this blog.
Follow her on Twitter here: @kavitadevgan