A basic recipe for dal

People say philosophy is useless. But what could be more useful than dal?

A basic recipe for dal
Yer basic tarka dal


Isn't this a little ... off-piste? The new philosophy may be new, but it is still philosophy, right?

You want to write about dal?

Yes, dear friends. Dal.

For as long as there have been philosophers, there have been people telling them that philosophy is useless. Consider this my riposte.

What could be more useful than dal? Cheap, tasty, nutritious. Not something to scorn in this time of high prices and low energy.

I recently got Google Analytics for the site and I check obsessively to see how many views I'm getting. Apparently this is a rite of passage for people making content on the internet. Since throwing open my doors, I've had 466 views. From one perspective, this is very little. From another, it's a minor miracle - 466?! Already?

I spent 3 years writing my doctoral dissertation and I would guess that 4 people have read it: my supervisor, my examiners, and me. And I'm not completely sure about one of my examiners.

My own family refuse to read it. And I support them in this decision. The UN Convention on cruel and unusual punishment prohibits making people read my disssertation.

Anyway, Google Analytics tells me that I have traffic from all around the world: UK, Germany, Austria, France, USA, Canada, Mexico, UAE, Egypt, India, Sri Lanka.

This is very gratifying but raises a conundrum. As Wodehouse put it,

“A thing I never know, when I’m starting out to tell a story about a chap I’ve told a story about before, is how much explanation to bung in at the outset. It’s a problem you’ve got to look at from every angle. I mean to say, in the present case, if I take it for granted that my public knows all about Gussie Fink-Nottle and just breeze ahead, those publicans who weren’t hanging on my lips the first time are apt to be fogged.
“Whereas if before kicking off I give about eight volumes of the man’s life and history, other bimbos who were so hanging will stifle yawns and murmur ‘Old stuff. Get on with it.’
I suppose the only thing to do is to put the salient facts as briefly as possible in the possession of the first gang, waving an apologetic hand at the second gang the while, to indicate that they had better let their attention wander for a minute or two and that I will be with them shortly.”

Some of you will know about dal. You may even be eating it as we speak. To others, "dal" will be a mystery. What is he on about, they will wonder?

I will imitate the great man. Let me quickly explain what dal is. The people who already know, ignore the next paragraph.

Dal is both an ingredient and a dish. As ingredient, it refers to lentils, dried beans, pulses. As dish, it refers to a kind of stew or soup made from those selfsame ingredients. It is the staple dish of the subcontinent and comes in a dizzying variety of forms.

My friend Johanna invented a rather wonderful term: Geborgenheitsessen.

It's one of those portmanteau words that German is so wonderful at. I'll restrict myself, with great difficulty, to three examples:

  1. Kummerspeck: Kummer means grief and Speck means bacon. So literally, this means Grief-Bacon. It signifies the weight you put on because of overeating in response to sorrow.
  2. Schadenfreude: Schaden means harm and Freude means joy. So literally, this word means Harm-Joy. It refers to the joy you find in other people's misfortune.
  3. Backpfeifengesicht: Backpfeifen means slap and Gesicht means face. Literally, this word means Slap-Face. It refers to a face that you'd like to slap.

And now back to regular programming. My friend Johanna, and Geborgenheitsessen.

Geborgenheit refers to a feeling of belonging, of comfort and security, the feeling of being in one's true home. When my son snuggles tight into his mother's chest, his little eyes peeking out, one of the things he feels is geborgenheit.

Essen is a town in North Rhine Westphalia (the home of Borussia Dortmund for all the football fans out there, and the home of Germany's industrial revolution, for all the fans of a ruined post-apocalyptic landscape out there).

Wait, no. Johanna did not mean a sense of belonging in North Rhine Westphalia.

Essen also means food in German. I think this is how Johanna meant the term in her invention.

Geborgenheitsessen is food that feels like coming home. It comforts you, but is not comfort food. Junk food, for example, is comfort food par excellence, but it is not for me geborgenheitsessen. What is?

Curd rice, a simple South Indian dish of rice mixed with yogurt and lightly spiced. Khichdi, another very simple preparation, in its simplest version just rice, lentils, salt and turmeric cooked together. Chilli cheese toast, but only the way my sister makes it, and only when its made by my sister. Nudeln mit Pilzsoße, pasta with a mushroom sauce, the pasta can be penne, fusilli, tagliatelle, but never spaghetti, the sauce has a lot of mushrooms and a lot of cream, cut in the cooking with mustard and possibly a splash of Tabasco. Dal-Chawal, dal with rice, a simple dal poured over a steaming bowl of white rice, a squeeze of lemon on top and some sliced raw onions on the side.

Tell me what your geborgenheitsessen is. Comment here, email me, tweet me, attach a scroll to a carrier pigeon ... whatever. I'm suddenly filled with a desire to know.

My curd rice is a lot less fancy, but this one looks better

In the Renaissance, that great wild flowering which still sustains European culture today, artists learned by copying. Even geniuses like Michelangelo and Leonardo went through apprenticeships during which they simply copied the works of their Master.

That, I now realise, is exactly how I learned to cook. When I first began, I followed recipes not just religiously, but fanatically. I had to have all the ingredients, every single one, in the right quantities. I had to follow the steps outlined exactly as they were outlined. I was copying an ideal, or at least someone who was more advanced than I was.

As I cooked more, my knowledge grew, my intuition developed, and with it my confidence. Today I never cook from a recipe. I will look at a few if it's a dish I've never cooked before, just to get a general idea of the principle and the structure, and then I'll improvise.

I now think that rather than recipes, it's better to learn techniques. A recipe restricts you to a single thing, while a technique frees you up to make many things. When you follow a recipe, you're forced to submit to the prescriptions of another mind, a mind that has no knowledge of you, no sensitivity to you, to the ingredients you're working with.

But one way to learn techniques is exactly through recipes - cook enough recipes for a dal and eventually you'll see, ah, that's the basic structure!

So what I'll do here, being infinitely generous, is give you a recipe and along the way tell you about some of the technique involved.

At its most fundamental, dal consists of lentils and spices. All you're doing is finding ways to put them together.

  1. First, boil the lentils. Ideally, in a saucepan. But you do you. To get ahead of the game, add some turmeric powder (kurkuma) to the mix of lentils and water.

If you're starting out, and if you have the bad luck, culinarily speaking, of being in Europe or the USA, use the red lentils that you get everywhere. They cook quickly, in about 20 minutes or so.

2. If you're using the red lentils, use a ratio of 1 unit of lentils to 3 units of water.

The authentic way, the true Indian way, the only way to do this if you want to appropriately honour thousands of years of Indian civilization while simultaneously apologising for centuries of colonial oppression, is to chant Om while counting the lentils individually, and then, subsiding into silence, to feel the divine harmonies as you use a pipette to measure out the corresponding drops of water.

Me cooking dal

But, between us, it works just as well if you use a cup or a bowl or any kind of vessel. Fill it once with the red lentils, three times with water.

Remember that this 1:3 ratio is a guideline. Much more important is your feeling. Are the lentils looking a little dry? Add some water. Little too wet? Take water away. Start with 1:3, and then adjust however you fancy.

Put it to boil, checking occasionally to make sure it's not burning at the bottom. There'll be a kind of scum that rises to the top as the lentils are boiling. Sometimes I scoop it off, sometimes I stir it back in. I'm a maverick like that. I haven't noticed any difference in the finished result. If you do scoop off the scum, remember that you may need to put some more water in.

When the lentils are done, put them away and let them forever hold their peace.

Spice, spice baby. Vanilla spice. Baby.

3. The other part of it is the spices. The most common technique used in Indian cooking to season dal is to use a tarka - spices and herbs bloomed in oil.

4. First, prepare the spices and herbs. For your starter version, the following is good:

  • Whole cumin seeds (Kreuzkummel, for my German-speaking audience)
  • Finely chopped garlic. One clove, two, whatever, man.
  • Finely chopped ginger. Maybe an inch? Again, whatever.

5. Put some neutral-tasting oil - i.e. no olive oil, but to be honest, if that's all you have, go for it, it'll still taste good - or ghee in a pan (the problem with butter is that it has a low smoke-point). Get the fat nice and hot.

That bit is crucial. Get the oil / ghee nice and hot before you do anything else.

6. Once it's hot, for example, once you can see it shimmering with heat, and only then, put the cumin seeds in. You have to pay attention here. Let them cook for 30 seconds, maybe 60 max, till they crackle and turn brown and a wonderful scent fills the air.

7. Working quickly, add the chopped garlic and ginger to the pan, stirring the mixture all the time so that it doesn't burn. Do this for a minute, maybe two - again, you want to extract the flavour, which means you have to let it cook, but you can't let it burn, which means you have to take it off the heat.

The art of the tarka is learning to dance on this tightrope between triumph and disaster. You will regularly fall off. Accept this and keep dancing.

That's you on the tarka tightrope.

8. Take the pan off the heat and scrape the mixture into the cooked lentils. Make sure to get all of it in, that's where the flavour is going to come from.

9. Add salt to taste, cover the pan, and let the lentils cook gently for five minutes to let the flavours infuse.

Boom. Dal.

I have a new respect for recipe writers. That was more work than writing philosophy.

I promised technique. And, actually, I've given you technique - the technique of tarka. Let me make it explicit.

For good scientific reasons that I looked up once but have now forgotten, whole spices of all kinds release flavour compounds when they are put into hot oil. The oil then takes on the flavour of the spices. And when you put this spiced oil into the lentils, the droplets of fat spread through the entire dish, giving it their flavour.

It's a simple and quick way of adding flavour to loads of dishes. If you cook stews, chillis, soups - experiment with a tarka and see what it does. Put it on yoghurt and you have yourself a flavoured raita. Drizzle it on a piece of vegetable, fish, or meat and you have, I don't know what you have, it's some monstrous cultural-appropriation Frankenstein, but it's a tasty fucking Frankenstein.

This would have been a lot easier to do on video. And a lot more entertaining too, possibly. Do you want cooking videos? Like, philosophical ones?