Book review: Pull of Pulses Full of Beans decodes the cultural significance of ‘dal’ in India

Updated on Mar 31, 2018 02:28 PM IST

In Pull of Pulses Full of Beans, author Salma Husain delves on the history of lentils, shares recipes of unique preparations made with dal, and shows how it was popular with both commoners and Mughal royalty.

Dal Makhani and naan is a north Indian speciality.(Shutterstock)
Dal Makhani and naan is a north Indian speciality.(Shutterstock)
Indo Asian News Service | By

Lentils or pulses, known as “dal” in Hindi, isn’t something many people would like to make the focus of their book. But author Salma Husain is all set to prove the saying true as she chose lentils as the protagonist for her new book, Pull of Pulses Full of Beans.

Husain, along with Chef Vijay Thukral, who calls lentils the “mother of Indian cuisine”, has used it as the key ingredient for recipes in this book. It is divided in eight sections — soups and salads, snacks and savouries, pulao and rice, dals, international recipes, breads and rotis, and sweet dishes. The recipes are detailed and mention what the preparations are called in different states.

The book also has a detailed description of how to combine spices and the results, a glossary of English-Hindi terms for the ingredients, measurement units and oven temperature guides. The authors have also delved on the history of lentils, their use — beginning from the earliest of times down the ages worldwide, and the sway they hold in India.

Rice and dal is a staple across the country. (Shutterstock)
Rice and dal is a staple across the country. (Shutterstock)

Each recipe has been carefully handpicked, and has a unique story. While some are exotic preparations from the mountainous regions of Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand, several come from different communities like Sindhi, Konkani and Parsi. Dishes from Italy, Morocco, Pakistan, Iran and Nepal also find a place in the book.

Apart from dishes that were favourites of Mughal emperors — Akbar, Jehangir, Aurangazeb and Bahadur Shah Zafar — the book touches on the palates of the British during their rule in India. Contrary to popular belief, Mughal emperors did not only feast on the non-vegetarian dishes; they were connoisseurs of something as basic as lentils.

The author has included recipes that were favourites of Mughal emperors — Khasa tilaai (paheet) (plain skinned yellow lentil) was a favourite for Akbar; Lazeezan (khichdi of green gram and lamb) was enjoyed by Jahangir; Qubooli (Bengal gram pulao) was an all-time favourite of Aurangazeb; and Missi roti (Bengalgram bread) was Bahadur Shah Zafar’s preferred bread.

Husain has selected seven types of lentils and crowned them with the title of “popular jewels”. She has spoken about their origin, health benefits, and how they are made in different states.

Amidst the sea of exotic dishes, here are some that caught my attention: A mouth-watering spread of shami kababs (mince meat patties), kabab-e-khasgi (special lentil kabab), and ankurit daal ke kabab (sprouted lentil pattues); khilwan daal (dry white lentil skinned) — a traditional cuisine of the Kashmiri Pandits; manali aru daal (chikpea and unripe peach) and chana madra (chickpea and yoghurt).

A few others that I would like to include: A traditional Multani daal called “saat chhaunke ki daal” (lentil with seven temperings); daal ka dulha (lentil with dumpling); doli ki roti (stuffed fermented bread), and a sweet dish sanathana (combination of lentils, molasses, and coconut dessert).

Husain said that while in Kentucky she got a recipe from a friend at a cafe, another from an Arabian co-passenger during a flight to the US, and she found in Iran a recipe from an Iranian chef. Some recipes are from an ashram in Rishikesh, while others vary from street delicacies to recipes from festivals, weddings and even the 17th century cookbook Alwan-e-Nelmat.

And as she points out, there is even a festival dedicated to lentils: The National Lentil Festival which takes place in the US at Pullman in Washington state. The festival, which started in 1989, was originally an after-harvest celebration for lentil farmers of the state’s fertile Palouse area. Today, it attracts 26,000 people to a town of 20,000 and ends with a lentil cook-off, and the coronation of a little lentil king and queen.

At a time when chefs and authors are trying to churn out innovative dishes using either a non-vegetarian base or exotic vegetarian ingredients, Husain chose a run-of-the-mill subject to work on and has raised the bar of one of the simplest fares of the world.

Pull of Pulses Full of Beans; Author: Salma Husain and Vijay Thukral; Publisher: Niyogi Books; Pages: 204 pages; Price: 750

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