About two years ago, or perhaps a bit less, when I first started cooking Indian food, a very kind and generous British lady of Punjabi origin invited me to her home for what she jokingly called ‘a curry lesson’. I watched wide-eyed and scared. In awe of all the spice jars and containers dancing in front of my very own eyes. At a time, I knew and recognised a lot of them and had them in my own kitchen, but had precious little clue on what to do with them, if truth be told. That day was a turning point in my cooking in general for several reasons. The first, and perhaps the most important lesson, was to relax. Before, I was confused with all these spices, and scared I’m doing things wrongly. Watching her cook was amazing. She was instinctive, creative, spontaneous. ‘Shall we add a bit of this?… And what do you think that will taste?… I think I’ll do this….’ I relaxed in my mind, and in my attitude towards Indian food; I wasn’t ‘scared’ anymore and started trying things out. This is when the second lesson kicked in: trying things out, and getting to know my ingredients. See how it goes, and learn. Smell and taste. Learn which flavours go together, experiment. Watch what is happening at every stage. Feel and touch. Get involved with your food. See what it feels like at each stage. (Of course, this works with certain foods only.) I truly learnt only by trying and following my instincts. And then remembering and/or writing down what I’d done. And than doing it again.
If you recognise yourself in any of the above, maybe I could help you see that cooking Indian food doesn’t have to be daunting and complicated. Let’s have a look at this very simple Punjabi dhal. Simple in flavour, and simple in technique, but uncompromisingly delicious. Green lentils are simply cooked with turmeric, and then seasoned with a tarka of cumin seeds,fried onions (until brown), ginger and garlic, and then finished off with some garam masala.
Tarka is an Indian technique of frying spices in ghee or oil, sometimes with the addition of some combination of onions, garlic and chillies. This is done either at the beginning of cooking, or at the end. For more information, see Barbara’s post Teaching Tarka. If lentils are its body, tarka is the life and soul of the dhal. The tarka as a final flavouring gives it a character that makes it different from any other of its kind made with same lentils. It defines its origin as Punjabi like this one (with ghee, cumin and onions), South Indian (flavoured with curry leaves, mustard seeds and red chillies) or Bengali (with panch phoron, the characteristically Bengali five spice mix.)
Do try and make this, and when you do, smell the turmeric cooking with the lentils. Take a bit of lentils with a spoon and feel them with your fingertips. See how they feel on your tongue, between your teeth. Follow how they change in texture and flavour. When you’re making the tarka, watch for the bubbles around your wooden spoon that will tell you when the oil or ghee are hot enough for the cumin seeds to go in. When the cumin is in, watch how it sizzles and changes colour. Smell it. Don’t let it burn – things happen quickly with some spices. Now the onions. Watch them loose liquid, and then change colour from translucent, to golden through to reddish and then brown. How sweet they smell, how moreish they become. (See my post ‘Cooking Indian: How to Fry Onions’.)
I adapted this recipe from Vicky Bhogal’s book ‘Cooking Like Mummyji’. I added a teaspoon of cumin seed at the beginning of the onion tadka, upped the chilli and garlic, and reduced the amount of garam masala. The latter is up to you and your tastes, but for me the cumin makes all the difference, and I urge you to try it. I really love the warming aroma of cumin seeds popped in ghee or oil in this dhal. At a pinch, you can use ground cumin if you don’t have cumin seeds, but please add it after the onions are browned (and not at the beginning, before the onions, because it will burn). The flavour is slightly different, but it will add the important cumin note to the dish.
Another change, a little unorthodox for Punjabi cooking perhaps, is that I added a pinch of sugar to the cooked lentils, like they do in Bengal. I find that the sugar round off the flavours really nicely, and mellows the dish.
Vicky calls the recipe ‘whole lentils cooked in a pressure cooker’. I didn’t cook them like that, so that doesn’t apply to me. Plus I find this title a bit too generic, so I’m changing the name to ‘Punjabi green lentils with deep brown onions and garam masala’.
I’ve made this dish a few times, and it’s always been a hit with Someone I Know And Love. It goes really well with a dollop of yoghurt, some kale aloo, and chapatti. I have just made Anita’s garam masala, and can’t wait to cook this dhal again with it!
Someone I Know And Love has gone off for two weeks and taken our camera with him. No photos, but I will try to get a friend to exchange her photographic skills for some nosh.
Punjabi green lentils with deep
brown onions and garam masala
SOURCE: adapted from Vicky Bhogal’s ‘Cooking Like Mummyji’
PREPARATION TIME: about 5 min
COOKING TIME: about 40 min
CUISINE: Indian, Punjabi
SERVES: 4 as a side dish, or 2 – 3 as a main
1 cup whole green lentils
1 tsp ground turmeric
1/2 tsp salt (or to taste)
a small pinch of brown sugar (optional)
1 tbsp ghee / vegetable oil
1 heaped tsp of cumin seeds
1 small yellow onion, sliced thinly (or chopped finely, if you wish)
2 cloves of garlic
1 tsp grated fresh ginger
2 – 3 birds eye green chillies, sliced
1/4 tsp Punjabi garam masala
chopped coriander for garnish (optional)
1. Put the lentils into a pan with 2 cups of water (for now, you might need more later if you want it runnier). Let it boil, and skim the scum from the top. Now add turmeric, and continue cooking until soft. When the lentils are soft, add the salt. Add a pinch of sugar if you want now. Add some warm water if you like your lentils less thick or even soupy. (Vicky leaves her lentils whole, but I like to mash some of them up to make the dish creamier.)
2. To make the tarka, first pop the cumin seeds in some hot ghee. First, heat the ghee or oil (it’s hot enough when it starts sizzling when you insert a wooden spoon in it), and then add the cumin. Fry for a few seconds, until the cumin releases its fragrance (watch out, it burns quickly). Then, add the onion, sprinkle it with salt, and fry until golden brown. Now add the chillies, ginger and garlic, and fry for some more, until they soften and loose their raw flavour. If the ginger starts sticking to the pan, add a little water and scrape off. (I usually chop the onion first, then while they’re frying, prepare garlic, ginger and chillies, and add it as I go.)
3. Pour the onion mixture into the dhal and stir through, leaving some tarka on top. Now add the garam masala.
4. Garnish with coriander if using, and serve with some chapattis or rice.
More dhals from this blog: