Each summer, last few days of school before the break started were hectic. Even after the vacations started, I remember going to school for extra classes during the high school year. By the time I returned homeÂ around noon, I was welcomed in the verandah of our house filled with the intoxicating aroma that emanated from theÂ khus ki chik, a rustic kind of air conditioner made from reeds and laid in the form of window blinds, using theÂ looÂ (indian summer winds) as a natural fan to cool the space inside. Clasping the finger numbing cold tumbler of roseÂ sherbetÂ that mom kept ready in the refrigerator, I stationed myself in the lobby toÂ observed ladies of the houseÂ sitting on the juteÂ chataiÂ (mat) on the floor. There were all sorts of labelled containers of what is inside what around them and stained brassÂ paraatÂ (wide, shallow plates) infront. Sitting with legs neatly folded on top of each other, very immaculately, theyÂ picked the lentils, sometimes arguing teasingly or plainly gossiping about relatives and neighbors,their deft fingers, picking the little stones or unhusked bits all the time.They scanned through minuteÂ grains scattered in the shallow dish, separating one from the other, unmistakably picking out the hard inedible parts and segregating the cleaned portion towards the other side of the paraat.Â
I guess 'picking' the lentils is a ritual followed in many indian homes, even though most of the lentils available in the markets these days are clean and processed. It's a kitchen habit that is passed from a generation to other, more as a traditional than need. If it's not an arduous number of hours to be spent, a vigilant scan of the beans and lentils is what I go throughÂ each time I am aboutÂ to wash or soak.Â
In those years, it wasÂ dal - chawalÂ for lunch or dinner Â everyday. The variety of lentil changed and soÂ did itsÂ preparation and tempering but the menu, though a bit monotonous remainedÂ comforting. On bright, sunny summer evenings, chunks of fleshy laukiÂ (indian summer gourd) were added to chana daal, slow cooked till the squash softenedÂ and then the turmeric hued boiled lentils were topped with a tadka (tempering) ofÂ slowÂ caramelizedÂ onions & browned garlic, filling the kitchen with aroma of ghee & smoky cumin & green chillies. FreshÂ dhaniya (coriander leaves), exuberantly priced during summer months was especially purchased from our daily vegetable vendor, to be finely chopped and scattered while the daal was still hot. It didÂ make a lot of difference.
If you know even a little about indian food, you would know that lentils are an everyday part of our meals, be it any time of the year. There are numerous ways of preparing and tempering them, native to each region of the country. The flavorings can vary from coconut, sugar, garlic to tomato based to curried to what not. This daal is my summer favorite. I guess every family has its own twist on it. Some temper it with just cumin, leaving out the garlic or onions, while some prepare it with coconut and mustard seeds. I had the opportunity to taste a variation tempered with curry leaves at one of my friend's place. There is no right or wrong, just a choice. This is the beauty of indian food, it has no set rules. The same basic ingredients convert to a delicious outcome depending on who is handling them.Here, in my recipe, you could or could not add the squash even though it makes it hearty. Paired with rotisÂ or steamed rice, salad and a dollop of chiliÂ achaar, it is such a satisfying complete meal forÂ hot evenings.
Ingredients (Serves 3-4)
Cooking the Lentils
- ¾ cupÂ chanaÂ daalÂ (bengal gram lentils)
- 1 tablespoonÂ gheeÂ (or use oil for vegan version)
- ½ teaspoon turmeric powder
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 1 large tomato, finely chopped (yield about ½ cup)
- 1 tablespoon fresh ginger,Â finely chopped (optional, adjust quantity to taste)
- ¼ teaspoonÂ hingÂ powderÂ (asafoetida)
- 2-3.5 cups of water (adjust depending on the desired consistency)
- 1 small bottle gourd (peeled and cut into 2" batons)
- LimeÂ juice to taste
- Chopped fresh cilantro to garnish
For theÂ TadkaÂ (Tempering to be added after the lentils have cooked)
- 3-4 tablespoonÂ gheeÂ (or use oil for vegan version)
- 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
- 1 small clove
- generous pinch ofÂ hingÂ powder (asafoetida)
- 1 small red onion, finely chopped (about ½ cup)
- 2-3 fat garlic cloves, finely chopped
- 2-3 dried wholeÂ kashmiriÂ chillies
- ½ teaspoon red chilli powder (or to taste)
- ReplaceÂ laukiÂ (bottle gourd) with your choice of summer squash (yellow squash is a good choice over green ones). You can skip the squash all together too.
- The cooking time mentioned in this recipe are for split lentils. If you use whole lentils the cooking time wouldÂ be more.
- HingÂ or asafoetida is a strong, aromatic spice available both in crystal and powdered form.A little goes a long way. It gives a unique flavor toÂ daalÂ but can be skipped if you do not have it.
- If you are vegan, use any oil in this recipe instead ofÂ ghee. Coconut oil might not be a very good choice since the spice selection in the recipe does not go great with it but any neutral oil or olive oil is fine.
Thoroughly wash the lentils under running water 2-3 times. Drain and transfer the washed lentils to a pressure cooker and add 3 cups of water. Let soak for 30 minutes. Add chopped tomatoes, Â ginger (if using),Â hing, ghee, turmeric and salt. Put on the lid and pressure cook the lentils on medium heat for 3-4Â whistles (This cooking time will depend on the quality of lentils, so adjust). Take off the heat and let sit on the counter till the pressure releases out of the cooker.
If you do not have a pressure cooker, use a heavy bottomed pot with lid and cook the lentils for around 30-40 minutes or till 95% cooked.
Once you open the lid, with the help of a whisk or a spoon, mash the lentils a bit so that they are chunky-smooth consistency. I like my lentils to have some texture, however you can mash them to consistency desired.
Add the chunks ofÂ laukiÂ and return the pressure cooker to the stove. Cover with a plate or a lid and let simmer (not pressure cook) on medium heat for 15-20 minutes until the gourd is completely soft. Â If you like a thinner consistency ofÂ dal,Â add a cup or more of water.If you add extra water, let simmer for another 5-7 minutes on mediumÂ heat.Â Ideally, for this kind ofÂ daal, once it's cooked, the grain should be intact in its shape but completely soft or cracked to look at.
While theÂ dalÂ is simmering, make theÂ tadka. In a small sauce pan, heat up theÂ ghee.Â Add the cumin seeds & clove, let crackle, about 15-20 seconds. Add the whole dried chillies and let them turn darker in color. Lower the heat and immediately add the onions and garlic and let cook till they are golden brown, taking care not to burn.(TadkaÂ can become very hotÂ very quickly, take care that you act fast so that nothing burns.) Put off the heat and add the red chili powder. Immediately add thisÂ tadkaÂ to the simmered lentils and cover so that the aroma infuses. Let sit undisturbed for 10-15 minutes.
ScatterÂ with chopped cilantro and serve warm.