"I think I've been cooking it wrong for years. You're telling me that tarka dal doesn't have any otters in it? At all?" A reply to How to cook perfect dalI was brought up in a provincial town in the north of England during the seventies. Food was of the meat and two veg kind, where the veg was usually out of tins. Food was bland; take away food consisted of fish and chips, or more likely, meat and potato pie. Curries were exotic. We would have a Vesta beef curry occasionally, the meat in the middle surrounded by a ring of over cooked rice. My dad used to like Heinz mulligatawny soup, a sweet, peppery,hot beef soup. We went out for a family meal to an Indian restaurant just once. I do not remember too much detail about the food other than it being too hot for my palate and the rice being multi-coloured and the excitement as the dishes sizzled as they were brought to the table and the smells of the spices and the pillowy naan bread.
Over the years my horizons expanded. I lived in East London near Green St with its wonderful markets and Bhel Puri houses. I taught myself to cook and became a vegetarian. I frequented Cranks and loved their whole food philosophy. My diet was full of brown rice and green lentils, nuts, seeds and fresh veg. I enjoyed the indian cafe food - very cheap, plenty of veg options, very unlike the Bangldeshi "indian" restaurants found in most high streets; ghee-laden generic sauces with the veg option being to super-size a side dish. These mostly disappointed though it was the simple tarka dhal with rice that I would generally choose. I did not know what went into tarka dhals that gave them such a wonderful taste an aroma and a mile way from the worthy lentil soups I made at home. I suspected it was not otters. But it was only in the past year or so that I began to delve deeper into Indian cuisine. By then I could do a reasonable vegetable curry and not overcook the rice. A keen baker, I could grill my own home-made naan bread, which, even if no match for those cooked in the white-heat of a tandoor, still tasted better than shop bought.
But I started to read more about Indian cuisine and discover the great regional variations to this great country's food. A whole new world of lentils opened up to me. I discovered the secrets of a good tarka and created my own spice tin.
One day after a hard day's work, I was exhausted. I washed some split mung and masoor dal thoroughly, started to bring them to the boil. After skimming the froth off, I added chili powder, turmeric, some roughly chopped garlic and green chillies, and a handful of fresh curry leaves. Once cooked I seasoned with salt and added some crushed kasoor methi and then heated up some ghee. Cumin seeds and mustard seeds a -sputtering, a dried red chilli, a pinch of asafoetida, sliced onion added to the pan and cooked until browning, I placed the tarka into the pot along with a generous handful of coriander leaf. I gave it a sir, sliced myself a hunk of sourdough bread and took a bowl through to the living room. It was gorgeous , it hit the spot. If I were to be a condemned man then that would be my last meal. And I realise that I am not now always slavishly following recipes but instead, using them for inspiration.
No otters were harmed in the writing of this blog post. After a hiatus of almost a year I will continue to write of my love for making sourdough bread and in addition my passion for home- cooked Indian-inspired vegetarian food.