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Rude food | Black magic

Black dal, whether in its Moti Mahal avatar or in its currently fashionable Bukhara version, is one of the classics of 20th century Indian restaurant cuisine. Vir Sanghvi tells you more.

india Updated: Mar 13, 2010 16:52 IST
Vir Sanghvi

Rude food

If the

tandoori

chicken and the butter chicken (and its European relative, the chicken

tikka masala

) are the most famous Indian dishes in the world never to be cooked in Indian home kitchens, then there must surely be a vegetarian candidate for the same category.



I think I have found it: it is the black

dal

so beloved of Indian restaurants in India and everywhere else in the world.


When it comes to black

dal

I have to come right out and say that it is entirely out of my area of experience. I am a Gujarati and Gujaratis, in common with the rest of India, think of

dal

as being vaguely yellow in colour. We never had black

dal

at home when I was growing up and as far as I recall, most restaurants in Bombay in the sixties and early seventies also did not serve any dish that resembles the black

dal

so ubiquitous on today’s restaurant menus.



I always imagined that the

dal makhani

that we come across in restaurant menus is a Punjabi home dish. A little research suggests that I am not entirely wrong. But I am not right either.



The key to

dal makhani

is the lentil itself, the humble

urad

, called black gram in English or

masha

in Sanskrit. Of the 60

dals

that are in common use in India (

moong, chana, rajma, arhar/tuver

etc),

urad

is among the most ubiquitous and is found in many parts of the country including the south.



But there are many kinds of

urad

. And one basic distinction is between whole

urad

and broken-up

urad

. My friend Gautam Anand, who is fast becoming a mainstay of this column, tells me that his mother remembers urad

dal

from Lahore in the pre-Partition era. But, the

dal

she remembers was not made with whole

urad

. She did not see this kind of lentil used in

dal

till she came across after the Partition.



Gautam’s theory is that the Punjabis of east Punjab and of Lahore did not make a whole

urad

dal

. This was the specialty of Punjabis in Peshawar.

Dhabas

(there were relatively few restaurants in those days) sold a black

dal

made with whole

urad

and served with a few

rotis

.



When the Peshawaris came over after the Partition, they brought this

dal

with them. As many Peshawari Punjabis became restaurateurs, this was the

dal

they put on their menus.But even if you dispute the distinction between the two kinds of

urad

, what is clear is that pre-Partition Punjabis did not put tomatoes in their

dal

. If they needed a souring agent, they used yoghurt.



Why is it then, that tomato puree is now regarded as an essential ingredient of black

dal

?



Our story now veers (as does the story of the

tandoori

chicken) to Delhi’s Daryaganj where Kundan Lal Gujral, who had come over after Partition, had opened Moti Mahal and made

tandoori

meat cooking famous.



I spoke to Monish Gujral, Kundan Lal’s grandson who now runs the Moti Mahal Delux chain. According to Monish, all of Kundan Lal’s great ideas emerged out of necessity. When he began worrying about his cooked chickens drying out, he searched for a sauce with which he could rehydrate them. His solution was the

makhani

or butter sauce that led to the creation of the butter chicken, made from bits of

tandoori

chicken that were in danger of drying out.



Monish says that Kundan Lal then searched for a vegetarian option. Gautam maintains that in those days,

urad

dal

was not considered a great banqueting dish.

Chana

dal

was more respectable and in any case, caterers and restaurateurs were obsessed with so-called

shahi

dishes in which the gravy was enriched with cream.



Gautam agrees with Monish that it was Kundan Lal who invented the latter day

dal

makhani

though he suspects that it emerged out of a desire to do a

shahi

dal

to go with the rich non-vegetarian food. Monish says it was even simpler. All Kundan Lal did was to take the black

dal

of his ancestors and to add his

makhani

sauce to it. After butter chicken came, his next invention was butter

dal

. (Think about it: chicken

makhani

,

dal

makhani

! Obviously the dishes were meant to be regarded as members of the same family.)



I put this theory to Manjit Gill who is not only ITC’s corporate chef but is also extremely knowledgeable about the history of Indian cuisine. To my surprise, because hoteliers don’t like giving credit to each other, even Manjit conceded that the modern

dal

makhani

was invented by Moti Mahal. Till that version of the

dal

appeared, says Manjit, nobody thought of putting tomatoes into

dal

and no Punjabi home cook had ever mixed cream and black

dal

.



I had an ulterior motive in speaking to Manjit. Though

dal

makhani

is now a menu standard, the

dal

that has found international fame is ITC’s own

Dal

Bukhara. Foreigners come from all over the world to eat

Dal

Bukhara and ITC makes a fortune from its packaged

Dal

Bukhara which is sold all over the world.



So, is there a difference between

dal

makhani

and Dal Bukhara?



Yes, there is.




Manjit is clear that without Moti Mahal there would be no

Dal

Bukhara. Punjabi home cooking has no such

dal

. It was Kundan Lal who taught Punjabi restaurant cooks that the addition of tomato and cream could turn a simple dish into a world famous delicacy.



But equally, there are important differences between the Moti Mahal

dal

and the Bukhara version. For a start, the Moti Mahal recipe (as published in Monish’s Moti Mahal’s

Tandoori

Trail) is a mixture of

dals

. It is only 50 per cent urad

dal

. The other 50 per cent is equally divided between

rajma

and

chana

dal

. The Bukhara

dal

is all

urad

.



Manjit says that most restaurants follow the Moti Mahal recipe because the other dals add what chefs call ‘viscosity.’ (In simple English, this means that the resulting

dal

is thicker.) Moreover, the

rajma

adds a little colour.



The Bukhara

dal

gets its viscosity from slow cooking – something most restaurants don’t bother with. Like some ancient stock, it never stops cooking. The chefs cook it on a low flame overnight and then, never take it off the fire. When you order a

Dal

Bukhara, they simply ladle it out of the master pot. At most restaurants,

dal

makhani

is cooked once a day and then taken off the fire. When you order it, they heat it up again and add cream and various other kinds of dairy fat and flavouring to tart it up before service. This is why black

dal

in other restaurants is often served much hotter than the Bukhara version.



There are other differences as well. Because Moti Mahal was a way for refugees to stand on their own feet after Partition, all its dishes emerged out of improvisation. Bukhara, on the other hand, is India’s most expensive restaurant (for Indian food at least) and so, has an obsession with the quality of the lentils, sourcing them from the best farmers and then worrying incessantly about the water it uses. Any chef will tell you that water is the key to good

dal

. But water varies from city to city and frequently, urban water is either over-chlorinated or, if you use your own filters, can taste slightly odd. ITC uses mineral water to standardise the taste of its

Dal

Bukhara at all its hotels.



The obsession with detail extends to the packaged version. When they first started selling the

dal

, they were surprised by the negative feedback. ITC chefs tried the canned

dal

and discovered that it really wasn’t very good. They could not understand this. They had made the

dal

to the traditional recipe.



It took some research to work out that the

dal

had reacted with the metal of the can and its taste had changed. So, now ITC refuses to can the

dal

and sells it in sachets which preserve the taste far better. (Though of course, you can buy canned black

dal

from a variety of other companies.)



If all this has fooled you into believing that I’m a great black

dal

fan, rest assured that my interest in the invention of this dish is purely academic. I do not like the restaurant version of black

dal

and each time I eat it, I can feel my arteries harden.



My own view, for what it’s worth, is that the chefs of the Fifties and Sixties (people like Kundan Lal) did for Indian restaurants what the likes of Escoffier did for French cuisine. They created dishes, they invented sauces that became kitchen standards (the

makhani

sauce, for instance) and they established the basic north Indian menu which remained largely unchanged for the rest of the 20th century.



But these dishes were creatures of their time. Just as Escoffier was God’s gift to the dairy and milling industries because all his dishes required cream, butter and flour, the great Indian chefs of the Fifties and Sixties pursued a goal that no longer seems very interesting to us: they wanted food that tasted

shahi

or rich.



The basis of any

shahi

dish is essentially, animal fat. Take away

tandoori

meat and much of mid-20th century Indian cuisine was about fat. Chefs cooked in lots of oil, they suffused their curries with animal fat and they loved dairy fat. When they made vegetarian dishes, they compensated for the lack of meat fat by adding cow fat in the form of butter, ghee and cream. That’s why

dal

makhani

is full of cream and butter. (Kundan Lal’s recipe has one kg of dal, 500 ml of cream and a full kg of butter!

Dal

Bukhara is also something of a dairy product.)



I like to think that Indian chefs are now going back to their roots, to the traditional dishes of Indian cooking and to the food of our grandmothers who had no interest in feeding us

shahi

meals. There is a greater emphasis on spicing (

dal

makhani

and

Dal

Bukhara have hardly any spices) and a conscious effort to lighten the cuisine.



Which is great because all cuisines need to evolve. But as this evolution continues, we can still celebrate the dishes that have come to epitomise a certain kind of Indian restaurant cooking all over the world. And black

dal

, whether in its Moti Mahal

avatar

or in its currently fashionable Bukhara version, is one of the classics of 20th century Indian restaurant cuisine.