Tadka dal with cinnamon and cherry tomatoes. Photo courtesy: Anjali Pathak
My first memory of food was the simple dal that I was fed as a toddler. The simple mash of lentils with rice that I ate as a baby, was my first introduction to solid food and remains one of my fondest food memories to date. Ours was an Indian family in the UK, and Gujarati food was prepared two or three times a week and the yellow dal would always feature.
My mum has been making the dal since a long time. It was prepared with a tempering of spices like mustard seeds, curry leaves, red chillies, etc. and for me, it’s like a hug in a bowl. Everything about the dal, the aroma, the flavours, remind me of simpler times. The dal was the first thing I learnt to make from my mum, because I enjoy it so much. But I’d been cooking from a very young age. I was just three when I first stepped into the kitchen. My mum would pick me up and sit me on the counter, open up her spice box to fry the spices for the tadka on the daal. She’d explain to me what each spice was, what it’d do and as a child, it was very exciting. All those colours, textures made her spice box seem like a playbox to me!
Like all chefs, I do long hours and am often tired at the end of a long day. So, once I’m back home, I am not in the mood to cook something fancy for myself. And on several occasions, I’ll make the dal – it makes me feel happy, gives me the comfort I need after a long day and is just minimum effort. I’ve made a few changes to it to suit my palate, like everyone else, but it’s just so easy to make and is my go-to dish for a meal.
For the tadka, I go an extra mile and add in the good stuff – I put in cloves, green chilli, black cardamom, cinnamon, fresh garlic, cherry tomatoes (if I have them at home) to pack in a lot of flavour. If I haven’t eaten anything much all day, I’ve modified the recipe to a meal and include my share of veggies for the day. Once the dal is boiled, I add in lettuce, spinach, rocket; any veggie that would bulk it up, make it more nutritious and enjoy my one pot stew with a dal base. I absolutely love it and haven’t got bored of it at all.
When I first began my cooking classes after my move to India, I didn’t plan on including lessons on Indian food in the portfolio, but since I grew up eating it, it made sense to include a few basic recipes. I feel that if you’re learning to make Indian food, you must know how to make at least one good dal.
Chef Anjali Pathak is the owner at Flavour Diaries in Khar, a cooking studio and private events space, where she conducts classes for European, Asian, Mediterranean and American cuisines.
As told to Nagwa Kureshi