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It’s time we had a chaat.

What’s sweet, sour, smooth, crunchy, spicy and hot – and that’s ‘hot’ as in hip? According to The New York Times it is a distinctive style of snack, traditionally sold from street stalls across India, called chaat (pronounced like ‘chart’) that has become popular on the streets of Manhattan. Across the Atlantic, Camellia Panjabi’s, Amaya, serves up a menu of Indian street food including a selection of chaat. Panjabi, author of the essential 50 Great Curries of India, is credited with making Indian food ‘smart’ in London. I have been in enamored with chaat for years. It’s one of my favorite Indian eats and I have my preferred chaatwallahs (vendors) in Delhi – a city renowned for chaat.

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Mobile chaat wallah. Rajkot Gujurat

 

The basic components of the chaatwallahs trade are universal; sticky, sweet and sour tamarind chutney; a sharp, invigorating green chutney ground from fresh coriander and green chilies; salted yogurt whipped to a smooth creamy consistency; chaat masala, a magical blend of spices made pungent with black salt and dried green mango powder; a plain boiled chickpeas and cubed potato; an urn of the spice infused broth called jal jeera. and a pile of gole or puri( crisp hollow puffs fashioned from either wheat flour or semolina dough) and papri ( crunchy discs of ajwain flavored pastry).

From these singular components the chaatwallah composes the dishes of his trade. To make papri chaat, he builds a base with a handful of papri and a smattering of the potato pieces and chickpeas. This is then dressed with a generous ladle of yogurt, a good slick of tamarind chutney; a swirl of green chutney and a sprinkle of chaat masala. All of the genus chaat are variations on this theme and the alchemy that takes place when these tastes and textures are combined inevitably induces sighs and grunts of satisfaction from the consumer. The literal meaning of chaat is ‘to lick’ and scooping up the last remaining rivulets of sauce in the dish with one’s fingers is an automatic reaction – good manners forgotten in an attempt to prolong savoring such sublime flavors.

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Railway station snack vendor Jharkhand

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The makings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chaatwallahs extend this basic repertoire with bhalle, a fritter made from ground urad dal that gains its unique fluffy texture from being fried then soaked in water and wrung out; rajgole, as the name suggests, a king-size version of gole that becomes the chaat equivalent of a hamburger with the lot, garnished with ruby red pomegranate seeds and slithers of white radish and red winter carrots.

Fortunately, a visit to Delhi, London or New York is not a pre-requisite for enjoying chaat. For those who like to undertake their culinary adventurism in the kitchen chaat is reasonably easy to prepare. This recipe for papri chaat makes an interesting first course at an Indian style dinner or served as a light lunch or brunch dish on the weekends.

Papri Chaat

makes 6 servings

Chaat Masala 

Ingredients 

I tsp freshly ground black pepper

1 tsp roasted ground cumin seeds

1 tsp powdered ginger

1 tsp ground rock salt

1 tsp kala nemak (black salt)*

1 tsp red chili powder (or to taste)

1 tsp amchur (dried mango powder)*

1/2 tsp asafetida*

1 tsp brown sugar (optional)

Method

Mix all the ingredients together and store in an airtight jar.

*Available in Indian or Asian grocery stores.

Papri

Ingredients

1 ½ cups plain flour

½ tsp salt

1 tsp ajwain or cumin seeds

2 tbsp ghee, melted

1cup ghee for cooking

Method

Sift the flour and salt together into a bowl; stir in the cumin seeds. Add enough cold water to make a soft dough. Knead the melted ghee into the dough until the dough is soft. Roll out to approximately 3mm thickness. Cut out small discs from the dough. Prick with a fork.

Heat the extra cup of ghee in a wok or deep saucepan.

Deep fry the papri a few at a time until golden.

Drain on kitchen paper.

Sonth ki Chutney (Tamarind Chutney)

My thoughts turn to heaven whenever I taste this chutney. It will keep in refrigerator for several weeks – if it lasts that long! It can be used to give a tantalizing lift to all manner of dishes.

Makes 1 cup

Ingredients

½ cup tamarind pulp

¾ cup jaggery, finely chopped or grated

1 tsp rock salt, ground

1 tsp kala nemak (black salt)

1 tsp powdered ginger

1 tsp roasted, ground cumin seeds

¼ tsp freshly ground black pepper

¼ tsp chili powder

Method

Soak the tamarind in one cup of hot water for 20 minutes.

Strain the pulp and water through a sieve into a small saucepan, pushing it through with the back of a wooden spoon to extract all the pulp.

Add the remaining ingredients and bring to the boil; reduce the heat and simmer over a low heat until the chutney thickens a little. Cool.

Hare dhaniya ki chutney (Green chutney)

This recipe requires a bit of labor and it should be used fresh. In India green chutney is ground on a grinding stone. If you don’t happen to have grinding stone handy a blender is the next best option (a food processor won’t give the right texture). The finished chutney should have a smooth texture.

Makes approximately ¾ cup

Ingredients

1 bunch washed coriander leaves, stalks removed

1 tbsp peanuts, coarsely ground

¼ cup green chilies, chopped*

2 tsp salt

1 tsp brown sugar or crushed jaggery/palm sugar

1 tbsp fresh lime juice

Method

Grind the coriander, peanuts and chilies to a fine paste.

Add the salt, sugar and limejuice. Mix well and serve.

To assemble the chaat

small cubes of boiled potato and cooked chickpeas

yoghurt whipped smooth with a fork

chaat masala

Place the papri on one large plate or divide amongst six smaller ones, scatter over a handful of potato and chickpeas, smother with curd, add a generous dollop of both the chutneys and a sprinkle of chaat masala.

 

 

 

Nimish: seminal gastronomic foam?

 

Over years I have been researching and writing about Indian food I would periodically come across reference to a curious confection called nimish, particularly in historical or memoir material about food in the Avadh (Lucknow) region. The writer in question inevitably rhapsodised about this dish, a subtly sweet ‘lighter than air’ milk based foam, and described the essential environmental conditions for its production, yet never fully explicated it. My pieced together understanding of its production was that an earthen vessel of milk was left out on a lawn or terrace on moonlit winter’s and by morning the overnight dew had magically transformed the milk it into a whimsical froth, solid enough to hold in soft peaks when scooped up but that this form was inherent instability. If the nimish was not eaten within the early hours of the day it would collapse. Exact ingredients, technique and the chemistry that allowed this foam to form were never revealed. I was curious about nimish however the unusual combination of conditions required for its production, as I understood these from my readings, made me think my chances of encountering this dish were small.

P1010064One of my most rewarding field research methods is to wander at random through the bazaars and lanes of Indian cities keeping a keen eye out for food ‘finds’. This was just what I was doing one winter’s day in Lucknow when I spotted a throng of vendors outside Akbari Gate all standing behind identical conical glass cases containing what looked like a captured cloud. I felt a rush of excitement: was this the ethereal nimish I had read about?

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I inquired of a vendor: “nimish hai?”. He responded with that distinctive Indian gesture of moving his head from side to side: an ambiguous movement that I chose to interpret in the affirmative. I usually try to determine a more precise meaning of this non-committal waggle but on this occasion my heightened expectation about the mysterious nimish overrode my tenacity. (My Australian accent debilitates the pronunciation of my limited Hindi vocabulary and people often do not understand me causing me to feel frustrated as know I am using the right word/s and it can be time consuming to persist with the process).

 

At the first mouthful of my purchased portion I thought: “this is more like sweet whipped cream, much heavier than a whimsical milk froth would be”. I also wondered how these vendors could be selling something in the middle of the day that was reportedly so fragile that it had to be eaten before sunrise. None-the-less I pushed my doubts aside and decided that what I had eaten was nimish.

I described this experience in the draft manuscript for The Penguin Food Guide to India. My editor came back to me with a query. She had spent many winters in Lucknow as a child and recalled eating a dish identical to the one I described as nimish, however she knew it as malai makkhan. This term translates as ‘cream butter’ and indeed this was a better description of the substantive dish I had sampled. I investigated. I learnt that malai makkhan is made by whipping unsalted butter to a frothy cream, sweetening it with sugar and flavouring it with various combinations of saffron, cardamom, pistachio and rosewater, and discovered that the term nimish was used flexibly and was sometimes used to describe what was actually malai makkhan. So had I eaten nimish or malai makkhan?

IMG_0198Another year and I am in Varanasi wandering the meandering alleys and bustling markets of this ancient city.. A large karahi (iron cooking pot) sitting on the ledge of a small non-descript stall half filled with golden foam sprinkled with finely chopped pistachio nuts catches my eye. I inquire of the vendor: “Nimish hai?. He responds with an unquestionably affirmative “Hanji”. I eagerly buy a plateful. One mouthful affirms it as the ethereal concoction I had read about: a light touch of sweetness before its enigmatic body melted on the tongue trailing behind it a subtle memory of rosewater, pistachio and saffron. I feel assured now that I can pronounce my Lucknow experience as malai makkhan.

IMG_0197I‘ve learnt how to make nimish. Fresh milk is mixed with a small amount of cream and a dose of cream tartar and left overnight in the refrigerator (dew and moonlight can be dispensed with it seems!). In the morning sugar and rosewater are added to the mixture, which is beaten/whisked until foam forms. This is scooped off and collected in a separate bowl. The beating and scooping continues until all the milk is used up, a process that can take several hours. The acidic cream of tartar denatures the protein in the milk allowing it to ‘hold up’ as foam. An older practice is to add a piece of cuttlefish to the milk to catalyze the same chemical process. Given the lengthy process of making nimish it is not surprising to find most recipes of that name are based on whipped cream such as this one from Rick Stein.

It seems that nimish had been close at hand when I lived in Delhi without my knowing it. In the capital it is called daulat ki chaat and is sold by vendors in Old Delhi over a few weeks in winter. This set me pondering why I had not seen it during my field explorations of that part of the city and I remembered that I had done most of my research there in spring and summer. While I may have missed (thus far) enjoying a plate of daulat ki chaat I rejoice that seasonal food specialties are still to be found all over India. In Australia we can buy Christmas cake and pudding all year round stripping any specialness out of these once seasonal items.

If you fancy trying to make nimish/daulat ki chaat I recommend you use the recipe from Priti Narain’s classic book The Delhi Cookbook that Pamela Timms has reproduced in this post .

Sound, sight and sardines

kerala toddy shop

India is often described as ‘mysterious’, typically in relation to some spiritual/esoteric/religious aspect. Personally I find some of the more mundane characteristics of life here far more mysterious than anything to do with gurus, sadhus or saints. So I thought I would write an occasional series on the ‘mysteries’ of secular life in India and relate these to food.

Indians generally do not enjoy being by themselves; even if an individual’s natural inclination is towards solitude the societal pressure is to conform to communalism: being alone is seen and experienced by Indians as something undesirable (such an expansion population also limits the possibility of aloneness).

The mobile phone has been a boon to Indians for now one need never experience one minute of solitude: just keep talking …and talk they do … under all noise conditions (and India is a extremely noisy place). Here then is the mystery: despite the Indian ability to hear someone on the other end of a mobile phone, even under industrial strength noise conditions, many people here are oblivious to the sound of an approaching motor vehicle that is mere centimeters away from them and they will step out in front of it. Even if they deign to notice the moving vehicle that I am sitting in, that seems to me like it is about to run them down, they barely flinch. Despite some VERY close encounters with pedestrians I fortunately have never been in a vehicle that has hit someone but I never fail to feel anxious about the possibility, and after the danger has been averted I then seethe with indignation at this seemingly reckless conduct.

I originally thought that this behavior was due to a failure in hearing (hence my opening gambit) but in pondering this conundrum I think I have solved it. After years of observation I have concluded that anything to do with moving vehicles in India is related solely to sight. It works like this: if you don’t see it, it doesn’t exist; and the only thing you need to see is what is directly in front of you. So the noise of a taxi barreling down upon you is irrelevant to your safety: if you don’t look at it, it can’t hit you.

This led me to conclude that perhaps the Indian government should run a health campaign to improve its citizens eyesight such that the eyeball is able to move beyond the fixed forward position it habitually adapts when encountering anything to do with road usage. The following recipe is my contribution to that campaign should my suggestion ever be taken up (while this is a ‘tongue in cheek’ piece an alarming number of people die on Indian roads every day).

Sardines are commonly eaten by coastal fisherfolk in India. They sell the larger fish as these bring a better price in the market and keep the less financially lucrative small fry such as sardines for their own consumption. These are packed full of nutrients such as omega oils, which are reportedly beneficial for eyesight. In the traditional Indian Ayuvedic medicine system curry leaves are prescribed to improve eyesight. Given the prolific use of curry leaves in South Indian cookery you would expect that the people of the south would have perfect vision but the incidents of pedestrian dare devilry are just as high as in the north where the curry leaf is not used so prolifically. Never the less I am still going to put forward a recipe with curry leaves as it may be that the it is the combination with sardines will activate the sight improving factor in these. A similar dish, more heavily mined with red chili, can also be found in toddy shops in Kerala: perhaps it helps men to better see their way home after a few rounds of this alcoholic beverage.

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Muthi kari (toddy shop sardines): Kuttanad Kerala

Toddy Shop Sardines 

Serves 6-8

Ingredients

½ tsp turmeric

1 kg sardines

10 black peppercorns

2 tsp coriander seeds

½ tsp fenugreek seeds

2 tbsp vegetable oil

1 medium sized red onion, finely chopped

2 tsp ginger paste

1-2 red chillies roughly chopped or 1 red capsicum finely diced

2 tbsp garlic paste

1 stalk curry leaves

salt to taste

Method

Clean the sardines and sprinkle with the turmeric and salt, mix and set aside.

Dry roast the peppercorns, coriander and fenugreek seeds and grind to a powder.

Heat the 1 tbsp of oil over a medium high heat and when hot add the curry leaves. When these have changed colour mix in the onion and ginger paste. Cook for two minutes and add the red chilli or red pepper. Cook until the onion is translucent and the chilli softened.

Mix the garlic paste with the spice powder and a little water to make a paste. Add this to the onion mix, salt to taste and cook for two minutes.

Place a large shallow fry pan over a medium high heat with one tbsp of oil. Place a layer of sardines in the pan spread these with some of the onion mix, another layer of sardines and more of the onion mix. Pour over enough water (perhaps with a little white wine or lime/lemon juice mixed in as well) to cover and cook until the sardines are cooked through and the gravy has dried off a bit.

Serve hot with rice or bread.

 

Tea and Trains

Of all the things India needs to change for the better – women’s rights; civic cleanliness; sanitation; roads, road rules, driving skills – it had to choose chai – a beverage that was in perfectly good working order as it was.

When I first came to India more than a decade ago when you traveled on a train chai was served to you in small clay cups. These added a particular earthy flavour to the tea and when you were finished you threw the cup onto the railtracks if at a station, or out of the train window if you were en-route. The cup would break and time would recycle it back to it’s original organic form.: dust, earth. The chai itself would be a preparation of tea leaves brewed in milk — some chai wallahs (tea sellers) might add a few spices— liberally sweetened and always hot*. Whilst it wasn’t a brew your tooth enamel appreciated it was an essential accompaniment to any train journey.

I recently arrived at New Delhi railway station to catch the train to Kolkata with plenty of time to spare catch so I naturally thought I would have a cup of tea whilst I waited. I parted with 5 rupees and was presented with a plastic cup  in which a teabag was stewing in watery milk (or was it milky water?). Although it was sweet and hot, this could not redeem it from being truly awful. How sad that the ancient voluptuous clay vessel – each one unique —has been replaced with the uniform anorexic brittleness of plastic.

It didn’t get much better on the train— a Rajdhani Express with meals and drinks included in the fare. The chai was do-it-yourself —a thermos of hot water, two tea bags, a sachet of dairy whitener and two bulging sachets of sugar. The resulting brew might have been ok it I was camping but in these circumstances my expectations had been much higher and I was not satisfied.

At 6.30 am we pulled into a station somewhere in rural  West Bengal— and I spotted a chaiwallah. I indicated to him that I would like some chai. He automatically reached for a plastic cup: ‘Ji nahin’ (no!) … I wish I could say I launched into perfect Hindi about how I preferred the clay cups he also had but I just pointed. Oh it was good — and when I it was finished I dropped the cup onto the tracks – ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

There is no difficulty getting a truly hot drink in India. I ordered a hot chocolate in Flury’s in Kolkata and it was actually ‘hot’ – without me having to plead with the barista to make it ‘really, really, really hot’ only to still end up with a warm drink. Why is it that in this unbearably hot and sticky climate people get hot drinks right? 

Sweet Faith

You might think I am becoming religious with all my talk of gods and goddesses – and there is more to come in this post on that topic – but I can assure you there that there is no conversion going on. The reason for so much talk of immortals is that food in used extensively in daily worship and annual religious celebrations in India and much of it is of the sweet variety. And this is where my – purely visceral –  interest lays as I have a sweet tooth and I am always happy to celebrate – gods and humans alike – with sugary treats.

One of the most popular Hindu gods – amongst the thousands that are available to choose from – is the elephant headed god Ganesha: amongst his powers he can remove obstacles and bestow good fortune. The holy pachyderm is particularly loved in Maharashtra (the state I am currently visiting) where he is robustly celebrated each year with a festival devoted solely to him (Ganesh Chaturthi).

Ganesh’s favourite food is a confection called modak (images of Ganesha often have him balancing one of these sweets in the palm of his hand). I have just polished off a plate of these delicious sweets at the home I am staying at in the Sindhburg region of Maharastra (visit www.cultureaangan.com for details of the home stay options in this beautiful, ‘German bakery’ free destination).

I do not as yet have a tested recipe for modak so I will just explain how to make them as told to me by my host Amrutha.

Modak

Measure equal quantities of water and rice flour – a cup of each as a minimum.

Put the water in a saucepan with a pinch of salt and one teaspoon of ghee and bring to the boil.

Remove the water from the heat and stir in the rice flour to create a smooth paste/mix. Cover the pot and allow it to sit for 5-10 minutes. The mix should become a smooth dough.

Mix equal quantities of roughly grated fresh coconut or shredded coconut (moisten with a little water or coconut milk if using this form) and gur/jaggery* to create the filling.

Take a small ball of the dough and pat out to form a circle (you might need to do this between banana leaves or foil if it sticks to your hands). In the centre of this place a teaspoon of the filling. Fold the dough around the filling to create a ‘tear drop’ shape and make a pattern with a fork around the tapered end.

Steam the modhka for 5 minutes and allow to cook before serving.

These sweets are truly delicious but I cannot guarantee this recipe to be fail proof as I have not yet tried my hand at it so proceed in a spirit of adventure if you try this at home.

Gur/jaggery is made by crushing sugar cane and boiling the juice in big open pots until it reduces to a fudge like consistency –in which state it is can be eaten like a sweet. The fudge like gur then dries out and hardens as it ‘ages’. It has a wonderful deep rich flavour and retains the minerals that modern sugar processing takes out. You should be able to buy gur/jaggery  at an Indian grocery stores but if it is not available you can substitute palm sugar or dark brown sugar – although the modkhas will not be anywhere nearly as delightful without it.

Driven to dal

Thanks to a large number of disgruntled sheppard’s occupying the railway tracks around Jaipur in protest at the size of their allocation of ‘reserved’ jobs in the Rajasthan public service my train to Bhopal was cancelled so I decided to take a car in preference to the only other option: a grueling bus journey. My driver and I hit the road at 6am: I was drowsily excited about the prospect of a leisurely car journey through a part of India that was unknown to me; half-an-hour into it I was starting to regret my decision to take a road trip. By the end of the seven hour drive I had vowed to not travel anywhere in India that I can’t access by train or airplane. The condition of the roads in India in most states is appalling: the bitumen surface a lace work of potholes, the boundaries frayed by decay: worst of all are the corrugated bands of speed-humps, these are unmarked and are therefore invisible to the driver until the vehicle is almost upon them. Luckily the road conditions make it very difficult to drive at more than 50km an hour (at best) so slamming on the brakes in response to looming speed humps results in an annoying jolting of passengers rather than whiplash; still a hundred or so rapid halts of this kind in a day leaves one rattled. There is money available for road development and maintenance but whoever has control of the kitty seems to prefer to channel the allocated funds to benefit themselves and their nearest and dearest. The choice of officials to expand their own private assets in preference to developing public amenities such as roads and civic sensibilities also means there is no money available for education of road users. Do you remember being taught ‘look right, look left, look right again’ when crossing the road when you were a child? Or something similar ?The inhabitants of Indian villages that highways pass through seem to have no concept of the road as a dangerous place: they allow their children play on it or very close to it; seem to encourage their cattle meander on it and happily stand in the middle of it to chat. I sometimes think that this behavior might be a cock at modernity (although rural Indians have taken just as enthusiastically to other aspects of modern life such as the mobile phone) and as such I have a grudging respect for it, but when the vehicle I am traveling in narrowly misses hitting someone who doesn’t even bother looking anywhere (let alone right-left-right) before stepping out onto the road and into the traffic I am at first relieved and then furious at the stupidity of it. Drivers are also largely uneducated. Obtaining a drivers licence in India seems to be largely a matter of having a passport size photograph and enough rupees to cover the cost of the official and ‘unofficial’ charges levied to print one out: there appears to be no need to prove that you can actually safely drive a car. Witness here the on-road behavior of my driver: every 10 minutes or so he opened his door —while the car was moving— put his head down and spat out the reside of his chewing tobacco; he also kept in regular contact with family and friends via his mobile phone—while the car was moving—throughout the entire journey; he also failed to notice large stationary vehicles—the drivers of trucks, tractors and buses prefer to just stop on the road rather than pull off to the side— slow moving herd of cows or posses of village women pow-wowing in the middle of the road until we were almost upon them resulting in his slamming on the brakes just inches from contact. This left me to maintain a vigilant eye on the road and be prepared to issue warnings about approaching vehicles/bicycles/pedestrians/cows or to grab hold of the wheel if it came to it. It is great pity that Indian road travel is so torturous as there are two very appealing aspects of being on the road: the majestic and varied scenery and the food. Highways in India are punctuated at regular intervals with roadside eateries called dhabas which are largely patronized by truck drivers. Thanks in large part to the condition of the road Indian truckies are commonly away from home for 25 days at a stretch (being stopped regularly by the police and various officials who extract unofficial ‘fees and charges’ also adds additional time to the journey). Therefore truck drivers rely on the dhaba to provide them with decent affordable food as this is where they take the majority of their meals. The dhaba has also become the preference for many regular road users and tourists who are willing to brave the often less than salubrious conditions to enjoy a tasty meal or snack (of recent times dhaba owners have come to appreciate that a ‘clean toilet’ will attract increased patronage). The food served in dhabas is largely, but not exclusively, vegetarian. The mainstays are hearty dals and bean dishes accompanied by roti (flat bread made from wholemeal flour) cooked in a tandoor (clay oven), along with steaming hot sweet spiced milk tea (masala chai). Additional menu items will be influenced by the season, the region and the preference of regular customers. The truck driving male customer tends to like his food well-spiced but he also likes it to be fresh and nutritious. I find it ironic that while the roads in India are generally in bad condition the roadside food is excellent whereas in the west the roads are excellent but the food served in roadside eateries is for the most part greasy, tasteless and lacking nutrition. Dhabas also serve up their offerings on stainless plates and in china or glass cups sparing the planet the paper and plastic disposables used in the west . We stopped twice at dhabas for sustenance on our journey. First stop a breakfast of poha, delicate plump rice ‘flakes’ lightly spiced with black mustard seeds, turmeric, fresh coriander and a hint of green chili and hot jalebi, a crisp pretzel shaped confection soaked in sugar syrup accompanied by steaming ginger infused tea. This is a classic breakfast combination in the region where Gujarat, southern Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh meet, although it is so delicious that it is enjoyed over a much wider area than the one I have delineated. The second stop was for another cup of tea. I was too full from breakfast to eat anything more but in my role as ‘culinary detective’ I poked around amongst the cauldrons of the kitchen, and the plates of the other customers, to discover what was being cooked and who was eating what. Most patrons were eating a thick porridge of spiced yellow lentils, accompanied by slices of crisp white radish ( a winter vegetable in India) and a chutney ground from green chillies and fresh coriander leaves: rotis were continually extracted from the tandoor and hurriedly sent out to be eaten piping hot. If we had lingered any longer in this dhaba I would have succumbed and taken a plate of the dal despite my lack of appetite as it looked so delicious (and now that I am writing this it seems remiss of me not to have done so particularly now that I have sworn off road travel). In India the word dal is used as a generic shorthand description for a dish of legumes cooked with various spices and flavouring ingredients. These legumes are also called dal but each has its own proper descriptor such as channa ka dal (spilt chickpeas), urad dal, moong ka dal, masoor dal, toorvar dal and kali dal (black dal). These can also be further categorized by the processing they have been subjected to, for example if they are whole, spilt or skinned (or various combinations of these processes): spellings of the names and varieties also differ regionally. Dal is the daily food of the majority of Indians across all classes, castes and regions: it is nutritious; inexpensive; most varieties can be cooked quickly (saving on fuel costs) and it takes flavour well. It can also serve all culinary needs as it can be used as a spice, made into savoury and sweet snacks and desserts and serve as a light soupy type support to a main dish or as substantial meal in itself. A bowl of good dal is a most excellent dish. It is something that I would chose in preference to many other more exotic or fancy foods. This is my ‘master’ recipe for dal. I have prescribed five different types of dal but if you don’t have all of these just make up the overall measure of dal with what you do have. Using the five different dals gives a variety of textures to the dish: the masoor dal disintegrates quickly working to thicken the dish while the toorvar dal stays firm and gives one something to bite into. You can also play around with the liquidity of it making it soupy or more porridge like as you prefer. In India this dish of five dals is called panch ratna which means ‘five jewels’: a name that indicates just how valuable dal is in the Indian diet. Panch ratna Serves 4 Ingredients 2 tbsp moong ka dal (spilt yellow mung beans) 2 tbsp toorvar dal 2 tbsp chana ka dal (split chick peas) 2 tbps skinned urad dal 2 tbsp masoor dal (red lentils) ¼ tsp turmeric ½ tsp salt Tempering: 3 tbsp mustard oil or ghee 1 tsp cumin seeds 1 dried red chili, broken in half 1 tsp garlic paste 1 large onion, grated ¼ tsp ground turmeric ½ tsp red chili powder or to taste 1 tsp garam masala (recipe below) ½ tsp salt 1 tomato, skinned and chopped 1 tbsp chopped fresh coriander squeeze of lemon juice Method Soak the lentils for 20 minutes in cold water, then drain. Put the lentils in a saucepan with 2½ cups water, the turmeric and salt, bring to the boil and skim off any scum from the surface. Reduce the heat, cover and cook gently until all the dals are tender (by this time the masoor dal will have completely broken down). For the tempering heat the oil or ghee in a frying pan, add the cumin seeds and dried chili and let them crackle. Add the onion and garlic paste and cook until it turns golden brown. Stir in the spices and sauté for a minute. Stir in the tomato and cook for a few minutes. Pour this mixture over the lentils, bring to the boil and simmer for 10 minutes. Stir the fresh coriander and lemon juice. Garam masala Ingredients: 1 tbsp green cardamom pods 1 brown cardamom pods 1 tsp cumin seeds 1 tsp whole cloves 1 tsp black peppercorns 1 cinnamon stick 2 bay leaves 1/3 of a nutmeg, grated. Method: Dry roast all the spices except the nutmeg. Grind to a powder and mix in the nutmeg. Store in an airtight container.