Penitent’s Dhal

September 12, 2008


It was on the Victoria line the other day and we were just drawing out of Euston. I was tired and hot. The carriage was packed with commuters, but a seat became free next to me and a young guy nabbed it. You knew he was a traveller from his piercings and partially shaved hair.

I concentrated on my book (Dave Eggers).

As I turned the page my bracelet slid down my right arm into full view. It’s from India and made of 5 metals, traditionally meant to improve your circulation. It also has Sanskrit writing on it in silver. In a flash of certainty I knew that the young guy saw it and that soon he would try to strike up conversation with me.

Which he did. Was that bracelet from India and when had I been there?

What shocked me was that 4 years ago, when I returned to London, I would have loved that conversation. I would have welcomed him as a kindred spirit. But now, I only wanted to sit there in the same dull, jaded stupor as everybody else. To be left in peace and the sooner the commute was over the better.

‘Yes, it’s from Kerala actually.’

‘Wow, Kerala.’

And then I did the unforgivable. I turned back to Dave Eggers.

So this is my version of a South Indian dhal, for that young man on the Victoria line. Made in penitence. Sorry I never swapped memories with you of the fishermen mending their nets in Cochin harbour.

225g red lentils
600-850 ml water
55g ghee or butter
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 small onion, chopped
1 red chilli, chopped
1 tsp turmeric
2 tsp ground cumin
2 tsp garam masala
2 diced potatoes (optional and not particularly authentic but a great addition. You’ll need the larger amount of water if you include these).
Juice 1 lemon

Fry the garlic, chilli and onion in the ghee until golden. Ghee makes a massive difference to the taste – it brings together the flavours in Indian cooking in a way that butter can’t quite do.

Stir in the turmeric and heat for about a minute. Then add the cumin, salt, lentils, water and the potatoes too if you want a heavier dhal. Boil well for a few minutes and then turn down the heat to a simmer, cover, and cook for about 15 more minutes, until the dhal is the consistency of porridge. You will need to stir it now and then so that it doesn’t stick.

I’ve had dhal made very thick and also as thin as soup (it can, in fact, be eaten as soup) and both taste delicious.

Stir in the garam masala and squeeze in the lemon. I sometimes melt in a little more ghee at this stage for added richness. A pinch of cayenne or a handful of chopped fresh coriander are also good additions. Some people like dhal with tomato puree in it (about 2 tablespoons, added when the lentils first go in).

Finally, make sure the dhal is properly salted, as this makes a huge difference.


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