When you talk to foreigners about Indian food, you run into all kinds of misconceptions about what constitutes the essence of Indian cuisine. When I was studying abroad, I was forever being asked, “Do you miss curry?” These days it is more likely to be “Longing for a bit of tandoori chicken, eh?”
In reality, I’ve never met an Indian who thinks of his own cuisine in terms of
chicken, a restaurant dish that we rarely eat at home. Nor do I know many Indians who stay awake at nights, when they are away from home, pining for rogan josh or chicken
or any other kind of curry.What we do miss is something that foreigners rarely understand.We miss
I know grown men who get
cravings when they have been away from India for long stretches. At University, I knew students who missed the taste of home-cooked
. And even now, if you ask most Indians what it is that constitutes the heart of real Indian food (the kind that Mummy makes) the answer is nearly always framed in terms of
And indeed, with the possible exception of parts of the north-east, dal is the great unifier of all Indian cuisines. Nearly everywhere you go in India, you will find dal on the thali or the plate. It could be the dal fry, so popular at dhabas in north India. It could be the slightly sweet cholar dal that is so distinctively Bengali. It could be the many complex
of the south Indian states. Or it could be the amazing sweet-sour
that is at the heart of Gujarati cuisine.
So dal is not just an important part of Indian food. In many ways, it is Indian food.
Essential to its appeal is the fact that
is not usually a restaurant dish. It is the sort of thing you make at home. A great home cook will make a great dal. But even a merely competent cook can turn out a perfectly reasonable
. You can eat
with rice. Or you can eat it with
. It doesn’t matter too much either way. It is the sort of dish that works equally well with the two great staples of Indian cuisine.
Restaurants, on the other hand, rarely get it right. It is rare to find an Indian restaurant, no matter how fancy or famous, that makes a yellow
that we would regard as memorable.
What restaurants do manage is a black
. But that, as I wrote some months ago, is a 20th century restaurant creation best suited to a professional kitchen.
Consequently, most foreigners, even those who like Indian food, have no idea what we are talking about when we say that for us the taste of home is the taste of
. They’ve only eaten the restaurant versions and those are nothing like the real thing.
My colleague, Pramit Pal Chaudhuri, has been looking at the economics and foreign policy implications of
. And what he has discovered intrigues me.
Pramit’s information suggests that my gut feeling is accurate. India is a nation of
eaters. But Pramit goes further: we are the only
-consumers in the whole world. (By we, he includes Bangladesh and Pakistan obviously.) No other nation has a tradition of eating dal at every meal – not even near-by Burma and certainly not the rest of Asia.
Lentils are consumed in Europe and parts of the Middle East but consumption is relatively small and if all lentils were to suddenly disappear from the face of the earth, it would make no difference to other cuisines. Beans (rajma, etc.) are a little more popular but they are not true dals in the Indian sense. The Chinese (and other East Asians) use soya beans (which is an important factor, as we shall see) but those are not
This means that whoever grows dal grows it entirely for the Indian market. It also means that dal is the most crucial crop for any government. If the Indian sugar crop fails or if domestic demand vastly outstrips supply, then the government can simply import sugar from the global market and drive prices down. The same is true for rice or wheat. But dal presents special complications.
There are only three countries, outside of India, that grow significant quantities of dal. There is Australia, which cultivates
only for the Indian market. There is North America. And there is Burma, which exports all of its
l. So, if demand for
outstrips supply (which seems to be happening now as prices rise) there is really nothing the government can do. There is no untapped source of supply. And it is difficult for existing suppliers to grow more dal. Pramit asked an Australian agricultural official about the prospects of greater dal cultivation and was told, “Look mate, every acre of Australian farmland that can be devoted to dal has already been planted with
We can try and get a few global cultivators to move from other crops to
But even that poses problems. Dal and soya bean require the same kind of soil. The US subsidises soya bean cultivation. So American farmers would much rather grow soya beans than
On the other hand, those countries that export dal have a powerful hold on India. The Burmese junta is not above threatening a ban on
exports to India in case our foreign policy seems unfriendly to them.
When President Obama was here, a member of his team asked Pramit what the US could do to increase cooperation with India. “Grow more
and sell it to us,” Pramit said. The official seemed bemused and went on to talk of the things that Americans are happiest discussing: arms sales, anti-terror alliances, tariff reductions, etc.
And yet, Pramit was entirely right. Dal defines a timeless India in a way that very little else can. It is our very own staple. And we have eaten it ever since India came into being.
For instance, though the Rig Veda mentions neither wheat nor rice, it specifically mentions
urad, masoor and moong dals.
(As always, I am indebted to KT Achaya’s masterly Indian Food – A Historical Companion for this insight.) Archaeologists have found urad and moong grains at Navdatoli (dating to 1500 BC) and urad grains at Daulatpur. Masoor has been found in excavations in Navdatoli, Ter and Chirand, dating to around 1800 BC.
The tuvair of Gujarati
fame appears to be of south Indian origin which would explain why it is the principal constituent of
There are references to it in Buddhist literature (around 400 BC) and it seems to have developed from a wild plant called Atylosia, which grows freely even today in the Western Ghats. There are two distinct varieties of tuvair. There is the south Indian version (a short plant) that yields the
and a northern version (a tall shrub) that is called
in some north Indian languages.
There are many other things that make
a symbol of India. Here’s one: almost every cuisine that has come into contact with Indian cooking has found some way of introducing dal into its food. When the Parsis first came to India, in the 7th and 8th centuries, they encountered dal which was not a staple in their native Iran. They had landed in vegetarian Gujarat but they invented their own
, with chunks of meat made with four different lentils: the famous
The Mughals came later and quickly incorporated
– largely unknown in Samarkand – into their cuisine. But they also made another discovery. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the staple food of Indian peasants was khichdi made with dal and rice (or sometimes, millets). The Mughals who were used to the pulaos of Central Asia, were unfamiliar with the idea of cooking rice with dal. They fell in love with
and in the 15 years that Humayun spent in exile, his Indian cooks made
for his guests including the Shah of Iran. Jehangir was so fond of Gujarati
i that he ate it regularly in his palace
But here’s my question: Indian food has given so much to the rest of the world in terms of dishes and ingredients. Why is it that
so vital to Indians and so eagerly embraced by visitors, has never successfully travelled beyond our shores? Why does it remain the one basic Indian dish that only Indians understand?
I have no answers. Perhaps, even in this age of globalisation, there are some dishes we like to treat as our very own.
- From HT Brunch, December 12
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