My mother was a proud Bengali. Her university of choice was Rabindranath Tagore’s idyllic school of learning, Shantiniketan in West Bengal and while we grew up in Bombay, India, she made sure we maintained a ‘Bengali way of life’.
And food is an important part of a Bengali’s life. Between money and food and lot of Bengali’s tend to focus on the food. ‘Typical Bengali cooking’ of river fish, dal and vegetables was a part of our daily diet.
It was from her I inherited my love of masur dal (red lentils). She claimed that this is the staple dal of the Bengalis (is it?) and it needs to be prepared very particularly.
Stage 1: Firstly it’s a ‘sensitive’ dal (yeah!) so I should try not to touch it too much at pre-wash, then once on the heat I should not disturb the initial cooking process by stirring with spoons or spatula and not even add salt or condiments at this stage.
Stage 2: Once cooked to the right consistency I should do the following- finely slice a medium onions, 2 whole dry red chillies, salt, turmeric and 1 small chopped tomato (optional.)
Heat oil, add the dry chilli. Then add onions. Fry till brown. Brown is KEY. Incase of using tomatoes add it now, along with salt and turmeric.
Once flavours are nicely mixed add the cooked dal and give it a good boil and then on sim for a while.
The dal is NOT thick, rather fairly runny. Must be eaten with rice and a squish of the special Bengali lime. No its not Kaffir. It’s seriously headier than the kaffir lime. Imagine a fragrance of lime, sweet mandarin with a hint of jasmine. That’s the Gondhoraj Lime.
But as children will, I decided to rebel. Rebel against this rather puritanical dal Dos-n-Don’ts.
I wanted to cook dal with the gay abandon of my Punjabi friends cooking their ginger-garlic-onion-tomato-cumin-cardamon soaked thick dals.
So I do a lot of don’ts. But only at Stage 2. (Mess with Stage 1 ? Have you lost your mind ? )
So Stage 2. Sometimes I burst mustard seeds before the dry red chilli). Sometimes I swap chopped green chillies instead of dry. Sometimes I add garlic (sacrilege!). I almost always add tomatoes and then when I want to live on the edge I add vegetables after the tomato cooking stage.
Spinach and squash are my two most favourite veges.to add.
All this extra additions definitely makes the dal heavier and to enjoy this I would say LOSE the Gondhoraj lime and instead add bolder flavours of a mango pickle and a papad or two as accompaniments.
But however you swing it my most fav dal IS the masur dal.
The black dal and dal makhani can have their global followings, but my subtle masur dal with the king of limes is pure…… magic.