The odd couple: how to cook meat with dal
Given that Indians eat more lentils than anybody else in the world, do we have a tradition of combining meat with dal or rajma?
Many of the simple peasant dishes of the Western hemisphere combine lentils or beans of some kind with meat. In Italy, they may eat sausages with lentils. In France, cassoulet combines a variety of poultry, sausages and meat with haricot beans. In the US, two staples work on that principle: Chili con carne of Tex-Mex cuisine, which is basically keema and rajma and the original Boston baked beans, which were made with pork.
Given that Indians eat more lentils than anybody else in the world, do we have a similar tradition of combining meat with dal or rajma? I thought about it and when I couldn't find many examples, I took to Twitter to ask for suggestions. Did anyone know of great dal and meat combinations?
Most of the responses suggested dhansak, probably the world's best known Parsi dish, which combines various dals with mutton. Others suggested dal gosht, a Punjabi dish that has long been the mainstay of Delhi's famous Embassy restaurant in Connaught Place. Bengalis (Gautam Roy, Kalyan Karmakar and others) pointed out that their cuisine sometimes combined fish with dal.
A surprisingly large number of people suggested two dishes that are cousins of each other: khichda and haleem. But the classic recipes for Hyderabadi haleem do not necessarily use dal. Khichda, on the other hand, is usually made with dal.
The origins of both khichda and haleem lie in the Arab world (it is similar to harissa) and though haleem is the fancier dish (at least in Hyderabad), like most people who grew up in Bombay, I prefer the Gujarati khichda (of all the Gujarati-Muslim variations, the Bohras make the best khichda). The dish is essentially a slow-cooked stew (or porridge) of broken wheat, dal (a little channa, urad and moong) with meat (lamb or beef).
But haleem has its fans too. Anirban Roy recommended a recipe. Abhishek Dalmia tweeted that the best haleem he had ever eaten was at Lahore Kebab House in London: "worth a trip just for this to the Big Ben". Going through the various recipes people sent, I discovered that in Delhi, and in Pakistan, dal was often used in haleem. But Pratibha Karan, the last word on Hyderbadi cuisine, says that she would never use dal in her version. And she rejects the idea that haleem and khichda are variations of the same dish: "in haleem, we pound the meat, for instance, whereas in khichda they do not."
The more I listened to people and read the recipes they sent in, I came to the broad conclusion that perhaps there is a communal divide: Parsis and Muslims are happy to combine dal and meat, but Hindus like to keep them separate. I checked with Manjit Gill, my oracle on the history of Indian food and he agreed that Hindus usually did not like mixing meat and dal. The exception, he said, was in Punjab, where meat was sometimes added to black dal (where the Embassy dish springs from, I would guess) but Punjabis used whole rather than split lentils and Manjit thinks that the dish has Muslim influences anyway.
So why is there a communal divide? Manjit does not think there is any deep reason behind this except for the obvious one:
Parsis and Muslims eat a lot more meat than Hindus so meat turns up in all kinds of dishes, even in sabzis made with bhindi or gobhi!
But nothing about Indian food (or the Hindu-Muslim divide, for that matter) is ever simple or black and white. One of the most interesting responses I received was from Moneesha Sharma, who has lived in Calcutta since the 1980s but who comes from a north Indian family (mother from Lucknow, father from Delhi) and who grew up in Chandigarh. Moneesha said that "meat and channa dal curry was made quite often in our home when I was a child. Just a mutton curry with onion, ginger, garlic, dhania, zeera and haldi (no khada garam masala) into which channa dal is added. Can be cooked with the meat but I cooked it separately and added it to the curry. Also tej patta. Quite delicious with hot chapatis."
And then, there was an interesting response from Priya Khanna who said that she grew up on a Maharashtrian dish of omelette and dal, made by local bais from Nagpur. I'd never heard of it before but she was kind enough to send me the recipe, which I'm including here.
But, if you leave aside the relatively rare Hindu dishes that combine dal with meat or eggs, you are left really with two sets of classics. The first are the great dishes of Muslim cuisine. There's Lucknow's famous maash kaliya and Hyderabad's dalcha. And the second set of classics comes from Parsi cuisine where dhansak must be regarded as the king of all dal-meat dishes.
But even within Muslim cuisine there are lesser-known dal-meat dishes which owe nothing to court and nawabi traditions. I spoke to Vipul Gupta, a young chef who is part of the Dehalvi banquets team at the Welcomhotel Sheraton in Saket, New Delhi. Vipul had gone to the Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah in search of recipes where he discovered that chefs, when they were not cooking great meals for their customers, ate a simple dal and meat dish themselves. Intrigued, he asked to try it and found it was quite delicious.
Why didn't they put it on the menu? Oh well, they told him, it is just a homestyle curry. He extracted the recipe from them and discovered that Muslim communities around Delhi often mix channa dal with meat (it is one way of making the meat go further in a curry) and that their simple dishes have little in common with the court cuisines of Hyderabad and Lucknow. Vipul's recipe has been refined but the original can be made with any cheap part of goat. Slow cooking ensures that the meat stays tender.
I've written about dhansak before. To my mind, it is the greatest dal and meat dish ever invented anywhere in the world.
But there is no standard recipe. I called Kayzad Sadri, the brilliant and dynamic chef at the Udaipur Leela to ask how he made it.
It turned out that Kayzad did not cook it professionally but he had some interesting insights. He calls it a Parsi sambhar because each house has its own variations. Even the dals (and a good dhansak should use four different ones) and the proportions they are used in can vary dramatically. At his own home, they use vaal, a bean that I thought only Gujaratis ever used.
I asked him for a recipe. He said he didn't have one. He only made it at home, by instinct and not with any measures or recipes. But when I pushed him, he said he would cook it in the hotel's kitchen, note down the quantities and prepare a formal recipe for Rude Food readers.
And he did. So here it is. Enjoy!
From HT Brunch, June 1
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