The Dhal Dilemma

Mallika Basu - The Dhal Dilemma

Posted 23rd September 2006













Shock. Horror. What’s this I hear about an Indian export ban on dried lentils and pulses?

The Times reported recently:

The export ban was introduced to stabilise prices after a drought last year that severely affected agricultural output. India is the biggest producer and consumer of dhal, accounting for 27 per cent of the 54 million metric tonnes produced worldwide in 2002, according to figures from the Multi- Commodity Exchange of India.

While there are other producing nations (Canada is the largest exporter) that could help to offset the shortage, many Indians will cook with dhal sourced only from their homeland, where the quality of the lentils is considered to be superior.

Lentils are a rich source of protein that are boiled gently, adding spices and vegetables, to make dhal. Dhal is delicious, nutritious and best of all really quick and easy to make. No Indian meal is complete without it.

So without being too melodramatic, I just want you to know that this is a major issue. Frankly, I will cook lentils sourced from anywhere. But the knock-on effects of the Indian ban could mean disaster for stocked lentils nationwide. And life without urad, masoor, toor and chana dhal would be a dreary place indeed.

I am going to do what any serious, Indian-cooking, dhal-loving Indian would do. I am dashing off to the shops today to stockpile on lentils until the Indian government sees the error of its ways.

For those of you with a bare cupboard, I would recommend an urgent trolley dash around your local Indian store or supermarket. While you are at it, you may want to buy some the ingredients below for my favourite dhal. It’s called Berry (bay-ree) dhal and it’s cooked almost every day in mum’s family home of the Berry’s in Delhi.

Here’s the recipe to serve 2-3 people:

Half a cup of red lentils
A cup of frozen peas
One teaspoon whole cumin
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
1/4 teaspoon chilli powder
1 long dried red chilli
1 pinch of asafoetida
1 spoon of oil or ghee (clarified butter)

Put the red lentils in a medium sized pot and wash thoroughly, until water runs clear. Add double the amount of water, the turmeric and boil gently on a medium flame. You’ll have to be alert for the first couple of minutes to make sure it doesn’t boil over.

The dhal will produce scum, which you have to skim off the surface. Every time it gets quite dry, add a bit more water. The consistency of this dhal is quite thick.

When the lentils start integrating with the water add the frozen peas. When the lentils and water are a smooth mixure and the peas are cooked, the dhal is done. It takes about 20-25 minutes.

Turn off the flame. Now you add to add the tarka – a magic mix of masalas that gives it the yummy taste.

For the tarka, on a separate hob heat the oil in a small frying pan or pot. When the oil is hot, add the asafoetida. This stuff smells disgusting but tastes amazing. You have been warned. Then add the cumin seeds, the red dry chilli and the chilli powder. Let it sizzle for two minutes and then pour over the dal.

Heat the dhal for another two minutes mixing the tarka in. Add salt to taste, and voila, Berry dhal is ready. Best eaten with rice but equally delicious with bread, pitta and roti.

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