The first hint that I would never truly tame Indian food came early on in my cooking education. Having run out of storebought garam masala, I decided to grind my own from a spice collection that had, by then, grown quite large. I confidently turned to my cookbooks and pulled down Indian Cooking by Madhur Jaffey, which listed one recipe. Classic Indian Cooking by Julie Sahni listed two recipes. 1000 Indian Recipes by Neelam Batra listed five recipes. Then I picked up The Art of Indian Vegetarian Cooking by Yamuna Devi, which listed a staggering eight recipes. None of the recipes I found were alike, and that was just the first four books I pulled. I could have wept cardamom pods.
Eventually I followed Sahni’s advice and made two garam masalas, one a delicate cardamom-based masala for yogurt and cream dishes, and the other a hearty cumin- and coriander-based masala for onion and tomato dishes. But the garam masala was only my first lesson in humility. The full scope of my ignorance became even more apparent as food blogs exploded and talented Indian cooks posted about their native foods with an authenticity and skill that I will never achieve. At one time I thought I could conquer 10 percent of Indian cuisine. The vastness of India and its countless regional and personal variations killed that hope. Now I’m shooting for an ambitious one percent. Wish me luck.
However much I don’t know about Indian food, I can still write about it with love. Mystery is as good in food as it is in lovers; it keeps you on your toes. Sometimes I take a break from Indian cooking. When I come back to it I always wonder why I ever left. I never tire of cumin seeds oozing streams of tiny bubbles in hot oil, onions darkening into shades of burnished oak and maple, and turmeric invading the weave of my apron no matter how I try to keep it clean. It’s a fabulous time. Here’s one of my favorite recipes; I hope you love it too.
SPINACH MOONG MASOOR DAL
Serves 2 as a meal, 4 as a side
Adapted from a recipe from Spice of India in Kitchener, Ontario
This was posted on an online cooking forum as “the best dal ever.” The poster tells me that it’s from an Indian grocery store owned by a Gujarti woman. I don’t know if it’s the best dal ever, but it’s my personal favorite because of the addition of silky baby spinach. It makes fantastic leftovers, so much so that I almost never eat this the day I make it. You can serve this with yogurt, breads, or any sides you’d like, but I love it just as it is, slurped hot from a spoon. The recipe doubles easily.
· 1/2 cup red lentils (masoor dal)
· 2 Tablespoons split hulled green mung lentils (moong dal)
· 1 3/4 cups water
· 2 Tablespoons ghee or oil
· 1 medium onion, thinly sliced
· 1 medium tomato, diced
· 1/4 teaspoon whole cumin seed
· 3/4 teaspoon salt
· 1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
· 1/2 teaspoon garam masala
· 1/2 teaspoon teaspoon ground chili pepper or to taste
· 1/2 teaspoon amchur (dried green mango) or 1 teaspoon lemon juice
· 6 ounces baby spinach (more or less is fine)
1) Pick over the lentils and remove shriveled bits and pebbles. Rinse thoroughly until the water runs clear. Drain.
2) Place lentils in a medium pot with the water. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat and keep lentils at a gentle simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally. Add some hot water if the mixture seems too thick. Keep in mind that lentils thicken a bit after cooling, so keeping the pot just a bit on the watery side is best.
3) While the lentils cook, place a medium pan on medium heat. Heat the ghee until it shimmers, then add the cumin seeds. They should sizzle immediately. After about 15 seconds, add the onion slices and fry, stirring frequently, until they turn sticky and brown.
4) Add the diced tomato to the onions and cook until the tomato disintegrates. Add the remaining spices and cook until the mixture becomes pasty and thick, several more minutes.
5) When the lentils are tender (this takes 20-30 minutes), add the spinach to the lentils and stir, working in batches if necessary so that the spinach wilts and makes room for additional spinach. Pour the onion/tomato mixture into the lentils and spinach, stir well, then cover and let sit for a few minutes to cook the spinach and develop flavors. Taste and adjust for salt before serving.
- Link du jour
- Mallika at Quick Indian Cooking recently posted a recipe for a similar Dhal Palak (spinach lentils).