If you’ve just about ODed in a wonderfully decadent way on gooey chocolates, holiday hams and too much turkey, have I got a quick fix for you.
One of my favourite gifts this Christmas was a Chunky Cook Book from the UK’s New Internationalist Press called Vegetarian Main Dishes from Around the World. Its name belies its size: this little book only measures about 4 by 5 inches but it packs a wallop, and not just in the food department.
Sales of this book support Fair Trade, plus the only place in the Lower Mainland where I know you can get it is in one of the Ten Thousand Villages Stores (on Commercial, Broadway or Davie Street in Vancouver, in North or West Van, or Langley). So to get a copy you’ll have to walk in the door of one of these amazing little shops where you can conduct your “commerce with a conscience” and walk away with exotic gifts that add to, not take away from someone’s life elsewhere.
Reading it is a journey away from winter and a feast unto itself: the recipes are simple and authentic — enough to make any post-holiday junkie swoon. There’s a fragrant spicy stir-fry from Bangladesh featuring turmeric, chili and lots of potatoes and peas; a Syrian casserole with eggplant; and an Ethiopian shiro wat (peanut stew) — dishes you might have savoured on your travels or while dining out but could never find recipes for them.
While every recipe looks great, it was the dal with coconut from India that got me to the kitchen first. I knew I had all the ingredients at hand, plus there’s something about eating lentils that makes me feel, to borrow an old hippie term, centred.
But reading the recipe I was confused: wasn’t dal the name of the dish made with lentils, not the lentils themselves? So I started a little investigation into lentils.
First off, my Encyclopedia Britannica explained that lentils come from a small annual legume that’s a member of the pea family, so-named for their lens-shaped seed. They are one of the most ancient cultivated foods, known for their rich protein — about 26 per cent of their content. “Dal” is simply a Hindi word (also spelled “dahl”) that refers to both the lentil and the dish you make from it.
I’ve also seen lentils called “pulses”, especially in European cookbooks. “Pulses” refers to all seeds from legumes that come in pods and are used for human or animal food. Pulses are all high in protein (about 20-25 per cent by weight) and come in a variety of forms, including lentils, soybeans, kidney or lima beans, peas and garbanzo beans.
The U.S. and Canada are big producers of pulses — I’ve even picked my own dried garbanzo bean pods from fields in southern Alberta — but India is king, especially when it comes to lentils.
“Dal is from all over India — every region has dal,” says the expert I turned to, Naresh Madaan, manager of Whistler’s Tandoori Grill. “There are many types — like split yellow or black or green — so it depends on which one you use and how you season it.”
Tandoori Grill’s chefs use whole black and split yellow lentils or dal, in a 60/40 mix — a ratio he recommends for both flavour and texture. They add turmeric and salt while it cooks and later combine it with a sautéed mixture of tomatoes, onions and garlic. And Naresh adds one secret that most people don’t know about: once you start cooking the lentils in a pot, only stir them once or twice.
“It’s a very good mixture,” he says. “Once you try it in our restaurant you will eat it every day, like I do. I think it has a more distinguished taste. The black dal is everywhere, it’s common in every restaurant. But people are very impressed by the taste of ours — they say wow, that’s a really good one.”
Like many people from India and South Asia, Naresh is a vegetarian and enjoys dal for lunch and dinner every day, scooping it up with roti or naan bread and having it with a bit of fresh relish made from fresh sliced onion with a little salt and pepper and lemon squeezed on it, along with some hot chilies. And like anything you eat a lot of, you get to distinguish good from bad.
“It’s very complex, but a good dal should taste a little garlicky or oniony,” says Naresh. “But you know what? A good chef can make a good dal without garlic and onions as well.”
Dal is an ancient dish, part of Vedic cooking, an ancient Indian vegetarian cuisine aimed at achieving the ultimate in bliss and consciousness which has evolved over thousands of years. Another ancient religious sect in India, the non-violent, vegetarian Jains, will not eat root vegetables like garlic or onions, so a good chef who can whip up a tasty dal without same is much appreciated.
As for my theory that lentils make you feel good, Naresh agrees. “After eating dal, you feel very contented for a few hours,” he says.
That alone is reason enough to cook with lentils. But this recipe from the Chunky Cook Book delivers more — it’s fast and easy to prepare and it’s so fragrant and delicious, it will have you wandering to the fridge at midnight to sample any leftovers.
Dal with coconut (from India)
from Vegetarian Main Dishes from Around the World
1 cup red lentils (if using dal other than red lentils, soak them first for 15 minutes then cook them until they are just ready)
2 1/2 cups water
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon fresh ginger, chopped coarsely
1/2 onion, chopped
3 tablespoons dried or desiccated coconut
1 tablespoon butter
Salt to taste
Put the lentils or other dal in a pan and add the water. Bring to a boil and remove any froth that rises to the surface. Add the turmeric, ginger, onion, salt and simmer together for 10 minutes or until the dal is almost done. The water should be almost completely absorbed. Season to taste. In a separate pan melt the butter and stir in the coconut. Cook it gently, stirring, until the coconut turns a rich brown color. When the dal is ready, spoon it into a serving dish and sprinkle the hot coconut over it.
Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning freelance writer who has just discovered the joy of French green lentils.