How making dal is like writing poetry

Reading a great poem feels effortless.

No trace of the toil and struggle the writer endured bringing the piece

into the light.

So with food, a great meal lingers. A great dish

fills you with satisfaction, eclipsing the effort put in. No trace of the chopping, stirring, seasoning, just the finished feast.

When I made this dal (my first venture into Indian cooking), I thought of poetry.

I thought of the process. Of stitching together a poem the way I stirred the lentils.

I add a word here or there, a dash of turmeric, a pinch of cumin, stir some more.

The fragrance alone

is akin to the sensation of curling up with a book of poetry when you're really in the mood.

Choosing spices, like pondering the perfect word in a line.

The right word can make a poem sing, and the wrong word, fall flat. So with food. The right spice, balance. The wrong spice, muddled.

Each step in the recipe, a poem's stanza.

Separately, you cook the dal, toast the spices, grind the spices, boil rice, prepare a slurry of coconut milk.

When each component is joined together, the recipe is whole. The poem complete.

When eaten, only the layers of flavor emerge. None of the measuring, toasting, grinding. Only heat

and sweet.


Recipe slightly adapted from Chef Kevin Penner

My dal took longer than 40 minutes to cook, and I needed to add a bit more water. A soak of the beans before cooking might help the next time around.

1 cup split mung dal
2 teaspoons turmeric
5 cups water
1 tablespoon salt
2 teaspoons coriander seeds
3 teaspoons cumin seeds
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 large garlic cloves, minced
1 shallot, minced
1 cup coconut milk
Cooked basmati rice, for serving (recipe follows)
Cilantro, for serving

1. Put the dal, turmeric, water, and salt into a 4-quart saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium and simmer, partially covered, for about 40 minutes, or until the dal is somewhat soft and porridge-like.

2. While the dal cooks, toast the spices and prepare the coconut milk. Place the coriander, cumin, peppercorns, and red pepper flakes in a dry sauté pan and toast them over low heat until fragrant, just a couple of minutes. Grind in a spice grinder until very fine.

3. In a 1-quart pan, add the olive oil, garlic and shallot. Cook over medium heat until just softened and beginning to brown, about 5 minutes. Add the coconut milk and bring to a boil. Add the ground spices and cook for 1 minute.

4. When the dal is cooked, add the coconut milk and simmer for 10 minutes over low heat. Taste for seasoning, and add more salt if needed.

Serve with rice and cilantro.

Basmati Rice

1 cup long grain basmati rice
1 3/4 cups water
1 1/2 teaspoons salt

Add all ingredients to a small pot and bring to a boil. Cover, reduce the heat, and cook until the water is absorbed and the rice is tender, about 15 minutes. Turn off the heat and let sit covered for a few minutes, then fluff with a fork before serving.

Do you have an Indian cookbook recommendation? Let me know in the comments!