Sometimes I dream of a soft buttery comforting dal, and I remember how many years ago, when my first daughter Lily was born, we moved to a part of London far away from where I had grown up. This was mostly to do with the fact that as young parents it was an area of London where we could afford to buy our first home. Back then it was the ghetto, now it is a very cool and fashionable area!
I found myself alone with a young baby in a strange part of town where I didn’t know anyone. None of my friends had even thought about settling down let alone starting a family. To keep myself busy I would go for long walks pushing the pram hoping to escape the grey and dirty streets of East London. One day I found myself in Ridly Road Market in Dalston, and it was in complete contrast. This was a vibrant and eclectic multi-cultural community selling traditional and exotic fruits and vegetables on old fashioned barrows. I would lose myself for hours wondering around in a visual and sensual rapture inhaling the smells of fresh warm bagels and spices.
On one of these visits I met a young girl who had recently arrived from Mumbai, she was on her way to Leicester University but had stopped off briefly to stay with her Aunty in the Kingsland Rd. We struck up a conversation while she was admiring my little daughter. As Lily gazed back at her with her clear blue eyes I quizzed her about what spices I needed to make a simple Indian Curry.
As a child growing up in the 70’s my Mother used to make curries from time to time but they always seemed far from simple. It would take days for her to gather the right spices which would then be kept for years in an old tin biscuit box. Days of marinating and trying to find authentic basmati rice always felt like a real palaver and hardly worth the effort.
We ended up spending the day together travelling on the 38 bus into the West End where I took her to Liberty’s Department store to buy her Aunty a present. On the way back she told me how to make this simple Tarka Dal that her family would eat every day of the week back home in Mumbai. Sadly I never saw or heard from her again, for some reason we didn’t exchange numbers but I’ve never forgotten her recipe.
Although this is a dal recipe it is actually all about the tarka which is a delicately spiced ghee added to the slowly cooked mung dal. It couldn’t be easier to make or more nutritious to eat.
The real secret for the soft buttery taste is the ghee and most importantly to cook the mung dal very slowly. Traditionally it is often soaked and then cooked in a pressure cooker to quicken the process and save on energy. I soak the mung dal over night, it is not always considered necessary but the extra soaking and rinsing will help to make it more digestible thus making it suitable even for babies and those with a delicate digestion.
A couple of the ingredients you may need to get from an asian grocer such as the asafoetida and the fresh curry leaves. The leaves are often frozen when you buy them but if you are able to get them fresh buy a lot and freeze what you don’t use. They can also be left out and replaced with fresh coriander but these spices impart a delicious, authentic and subtle flavour provided you are light handed with the asafoetida which can otherwise overpower the flavours and take over. The health properties of ghee and how to make it can be found if you click here. You can also add red chillies and chilli pepper if you like it spicy. I avoid these as they are part of the nightshade family and aggravate my psoriasis so I don’t include them. Read here for more information if you are interested.
Everyday Tarka Dal
Serves 3 or 2 hungry people
1 cup split mung dal (skinned and split mung beans)
1 ltr water
1/2 tsp turmeric
Pick over the mung dal and check for any little stones and then soak over night. Before cooking rinse it under running water. Put the dal and turmeric into a pan and add 1 litre water. Bring to a gentle boil being careful it doesn’t boil over. Turn the heat down very low and stir often to avoid it sticking. Skim off and discard any froth that rises up. Cook the dal slowly and gently so that it becomes very soft, it should take about 45 mins -1 hour. The consistency should be like porridge, add more water if necessary.
To make the Tarka
2 tbsp ghee
1 onion peeled and cut into fine slivers
1 tsp turmeric
2 tsp cumin seeds
1/2 tsp Hing (asafoetida)
4-5 garlic cloves finely sliced
10-15 curry leaves
3-4 red chillies (opptional)
1/2 cup of water or enough to make required consistency
salt to taste
- In a small saucepan or frying pan add the ghee and sauté the cumin seeds on a medium to high heat in a matter of seconds add the onions and garlic and sauté gently until they soften.
- Now add about half the curry leaves and the asafoetida, and red chilli if you are using. Stir well to incorporate.
- The leaves will crackle a bit, this is the moment to add the turmeric. Keep stirring. Cook for a few more minutes.
- Turn the heat down, add the tarka to the dal, you may need to add a little more water to get it to the thickness you like.
- Add salt to taste and let the tarka dal cook gently for about another 5 minutes.
- Add the rest of the curry leaves and cook for a few more minutes. If it is too thick add a little more water and salt if necessary.
- Serve with basmati rice or quinoa and a sprinkle of chopped coriander if you like.
This dal freezes beautifully and even improves with flavour.