The more I learn about Indian cuisine, the less I know. Or put another way, the more I realize I need to learn. This is a good thing, though it results in more than a bit of complexity. I’ve mentioned to friends that with all the regional variations of language, transliteration, and dishes, I wonder if “Indian Food” is a truly inadequate name for a subject so multiplex.
Here’s a simple example. This morning I started on Chef Sanjay Thumma’s new article — “My Favorite Dal Recipes”.
Dal in its base form is a dish of pulses (basically lentils, beans, peas, etc.). It can more specifically refer to a stew made from these. (The English term “pulses” was itself a new one on me that I learned in the past year or so.)
From what I’ve read, there are at least 50 different variations on dal with numerous additional combinations of ingredients and preparations. It is an important dish for the entire region, not just India. As Chef Thumma points out, “Dal can also be spelled in many ways like the ‘Dahl’, ‘Daal’, ‘Dhal’, or the ‘Parippu’, ‘Paruppu’ and ‘Pappu’ because of the wide cultural heritage and multifaceted languages that we have in our Country.”
Later in his article, in a section on preparing dal, the chef mentions the seasoning “tadka,” a word with which I was unfamiliar. As I normally do, I opened a new browser tab and searched for the word. Into the rabbit hole I dove by clicking on the Wikipedia page for “Chaunk“, the first paragraph of which is a good example of what I’m talking about:
Chaunk (Hindi: छौंक); sometimes spelled chhaunk, chounk, chonk, chhounk, or chhonk; also called তড়কা(tarka),বাগার (bagar),ফোড়ন (phoron) in Bengali, Thaalithal (தாளித்தல்) in Tamil, oggaraṇe (ಒಗ್ಗರಣೆ) in Kannada, vaghaar (વઘાર) in Gujarati, fodni (फोडणी) in Marathi, Thalimpu (తాళింపు) or popu ( పోపు in Telugu), Baghaar (Urdu: بگھار) ; Baghara (in oriya) and often translated as “tempering” is a cooking technique and garnish used in the cuisines of India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, in which whole spices (and sometimes also other ingredients such as minced ginger root or sugar) are fried briefly in oil or ghee to liberate essential oils from cells and thus enhance their flavours, before being poured, together with the oil, into a dish.
As the chef puts it:
The standard preparation of Dal begins with washing, boiling a variety of Dal (or mixed dal) in water with adding some turmeric (haldi powder) and a little of oil to make the dal soft a little faster. Its than smashed well and seasoning (popularly known as Tadka, Tarka, Chaunk or baghaar) is done at the end of cooking process and garnished with fresh coriander leaves. Tadka or Tarka (also known as chaunk or baghaar) is done by adding various spices or flavorings fried in a little amount of oil. The Tadka or seasoning is different and vary by region or ones individual taste. Garlic Dal fry is totally yum and deliciously having an excellent tempering of garlic flavour.
OK, that garlic dal does sound tremendous. Continuing along our learning path here, I used to mistakenly think ghee was simply clarified butter, but there is a simmering part of the process that adds a nutty flavor thanks to caramelization. Oh, and ghee isn’t always ghee:
The word ghee comes from Sanskrit: घृत (ghṛta, IPA: [ɡʱr̩t̪ə] ‘sprinkled’) and has several names around the world ( Marathi/Konkani: तूप tūp, Bengali: ঘি ghi, Punjabi: ਘਿਓ ghio, Hindi: घी ghī, Gujarati: ઘી ghi, Maithili/Nepali: घ्यू ghyū, Urdu: گھی ghī, Oriya: ଘିଅ ghiô, Kannada: ತುಪ್ಪ tuppa, Malayalam: നെയ്യ് neyy, Tamil: நெய் ney, Sinhala: Ela-ghitel or Ghitel එලඟි තෙල් or ගිතෙල්, Telugu: నెయ్యి neyyi, Somali: subag, Arabic: سمنة samna, Persian: روغن حیوانی roghan-e heiwâni, Kurdish: ڕۊنِ دان řün-i Dan, Georgian: ერბო erbo, Indonesian: minyak samin, Malay: minyak sapi, Hausa: man shanu).
So here we are with a simple family of dishes popular with millions if not billions of people, based on a lowly legume, and learning about it results in an explosion of new knowledge. There’s a multilingual, multidiscipline learning process I have going on, one of the reasons that cooking and food appeal so much to me. It’s rarely boring.
But to exit the rabbit hole, to calm this thunderstorm of learning, I alight on the chef’s mentioning of Lobia (or Lobiya) Dal, which are black-eyed peas (a staple in my house growing up):
In North India, lobia is cooked as a Dal and South India, the normal snack prepared by lobia is the “Sundal”, they normally soak it overnight and boil the next day and season it with mustard, curry leaves, dry red chillies, asafoetida, salt and fresh coconut grated.
Even something as simple as the term “curry” is not as straightforward as it seems. In the US at least, “curry” normally refers to mass-produced spice blends or to related dishes at Indian and other South/Southeast Asian restaurants. But references to “curry leaves” in Indian recipes will lead you eventually to the Curry Tree:
Its leaves are used in many dishes in India and neighbouring countries. Often used in curries, the leaves generally called by the name “curry leaves”, though they are also translated as “sweet neem leaves” in most Indian languages (as opposed to ordinary neem leaves which are bitter).
Ah, but we were going to ground this flight in something real — lobia dal. Here’s a “Manjula’s Kitchen” video demonstrating tadka/chaunk spice tempering, then with the overall dish in a pressure cooker:
And “jessica84143″ does hers in a regular pot:
Here is Nisha Madhulika demonstrating another variation (turn on closed captioning for English subtitles), also in a pressure cooker:
So I am left with a plan to make Lobia Dal in a couple of days, since fixing black eyed peas for New Year’s traditionally brings good luck in the coming year, and it gives me a chance to try out some of this new knowledge. More to come!