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Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Mama's Moong Dal

Somehow, I just can't seem to get this dal to taste like mama's. I've probably been making it for 10 years now and try as I may, I just can't seem to match it. Mine's not bad, but hers just tastes infinitely better. I use the same ingredients, I follow the same recipe, but I still don't quite get there. I can't figure out why or what she does differently. Maybe there's je ne sais quoi in it. Maybe it's just because it's my mama's.

It's the same sort of illogical logic why as a child, food tasted better when mama fed me with her fingers than it did from a spoon. Apparently, I didn't eat as a child unless she fed me (I more than make up for it now, trust me). And as the story goes, my grandmother needed to resort to gimmicks such as standing in front of a mirror with me in her arms, one hand holding a spoon to my mouth, the other pointing to the mirror and saying, "see, that baby is eating, you also eat!"

I don't really remember this, you know, but I do remember, that ever since I was little, one of my favourite dishes in the world remains mama's yellow dal. Tasty, nutritious and easy to make, this is one of her trademark dishes, one that she is not allowed to leave without making, whether she visits for two days or two months.
"What shall I make?" she asks several times during her visits.
No brainer. "Yellow dal!" I reply.
"Again?" she asks, hands on her hips, brown eyes smiling with laughter, the way hers do.
But the she promptly goes into the kitchen and gets started on her labour of love, emerging some time later with a "it's done, want to taste?"
And I run giddily into the kitchen with childlike excitement. I lift the lid of the pot and am greeted with an aroma that makes my taste-buds tingle in anticipation. And then, I "taste." I serve myself large ladlefuls of this hearty, creamy, wholly-satisfying yellow lentil stew and feel like I am five again.

It's funny how certain tastes come back to visit you again and again, at different points in your life. I guess we've named them "cravings." Food-mad that I am, interestingly, I only had one craving through my entire pregnancy (lebanese shawarma in my fourth month, if you're curious), but in the few weeks after the baby came, my eating habits took on a life of their own (two new lives, just what we need). I'm not a picky eater - in fact there's nothing that I won't try - but in those days, for some reason, my body wanted very specific foods - familiar, comfort foods - the kind I'd grown up with. It was tough in those early days with all my energy and my sole (soul) focus dedicated to the wellbeing of the little life I'd just created. I felt I deserved a gold medal on the days I was able to work in a 10 minute shower, let alone cook the stuff I wanted to eat.
Luckily for me, mama was here. And as I fed my baby, she fed hers.

So, without further ado, I present to you, verbatim from mama, her Moong Dal:

- 1 large cup moong dal
- 2-3 medium sized tomatoes
- 1 tspn ground turmeric powder
- 1 tspn red chilli powder
- 2 tspn jeera powder
- 2 tspn oil
- 1 tspn sugar
- Salt to taste

For 'tarka/phoron' :
- 1 tspn whole jeera
- 5-6 pods garlic, peeled and thinly sliced

Dry fry the moong dal till you get the delicious, appetite-whetting aroma of roasting seeds. Be carefull not to burn, a light toasting is all you need. Cut the tomatoes into small pieces. Scarily, the perfectionist that she is, my mother's tomatoes are cut into identical small pieces. Rest assured, mine are not! (I mean they all get mulched in the pressure cooker anyway, so what's the point?). Boil the dal, together with tomatoes and all the spice powders, salt, and a little oil in about 4 cups of water. Boiling is best done in a pressure cooker for 3-4 whistles. Mix the dal well when ready. Add the sugar.  Finally, prepare the tarka by frying the whole jeera and garlic slices in oil, until light brown in colour. Add the tarka to the dal.

Lesson Learnt: If the dal is too thick and you prefer a thinner consistency, add boiling water to dilute it. On one of my early attempts, I unknowingly added cold water from the tap and had to go through hoops to rescue my dish! 

The secret behind the distinctive flavour and the nutty, warm aroma of this dal lies in the tarka (or phoron as the Bengali's would call it) of jeera and garlic. Jeera or cumin is a wonderful spice, apparently the second most popular spice in the world, after black pepper. These little seeds might look unassuming, but as you will realise, they pack a punch when it comes to flavour. I always use whole cumin for my tarka as it tends to be far more flavourful than its powdered form, and adds that teeny bit of crunch to my dal. This, combined with the earthiness of the burnt garlic as it fries in your pan, is the essence of your tarka, and really, this dish.

The dal, when it's ready, is a wholesome and complete meal in itself. Serve with rice, papads and if you like - some hot mango pickle.

Simplicity never tasted so good. I can promise you'll love it, but I can't promise the je ne se quoi, that might just be a mama thing!

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