It’s never advisable to go trekking unprepared and certainly not in the Himalayas. Nevertheless; many moons ago, setting out from the hilltop station of Darjeeling, myself and two companions in inadequate clothing and flimsy footwear set out over the border to Nepal. After several days of trekking, we found ourselves deep in snow. Cold and desperately hungry on a mountain top, we came across a seemingly deserted government lodge hostel. By some miracle, out of the blue or in this case the snow, a fifteen year-old boy appeared, made up the fire and preceded to cook the most delicious vegetable dal (lentil stew). The memory of that dish, I still hold as the most welcome comfort food ever.
It should have been no surprise, as the unpresuming lentil has been a stalwart of nutrition and saviour of the famished for centuries! In the bible, the starving Essau, returning from hunting, sells his birthright to Jacob for a humble bowl of them. Since the 1st century, the Romans were very keen on them for keeping their army on the march. Luckily for me, in India, as Madhur Jaffrey, the famous Indian cookery writer says: “You can take meats and fish and vegetable from an Indian, but you cannot take away his dal – the core of his meal.”
With the change of the season… it’s time to fight offset winter chills, so here’s my own version of warming, comforting Tarka Dal with vegetables and plenty of warming spices.
VEGETABLE AND TARKA DAL
250g/9oz mung bean/ skinned yellow split or other split lentils
1 dessert spoon ground turmeric
1 inch of root ginger peeled
1 cinnamon stick
4 cloves of garlic peeled
1/2 of one onion peeled
2 carrots peeled and diced about half a thumb thick
3 potatoes diced small and soaked in water and salt while the lentils are cooking
1 head of broccoli or cauliflower, divided into small heads or florets
2 tbsp olive oil
¹/3 tsp asafoetida (optional but good)
½ tsp whole cumin
2 small dried chillies
1 clove of garlic, thinly sliced
First wash the lentils well until the water runs clear. Tip into a large pan with filled with water about 1 inch above the lentils (roughly 1.5L).
Bring to the boil. As the lentils boil, scum rises to the surface, which you will need to remove with a slotted spoon. Add the turmeric, garlic, onion, cinnamon and ginger to the lentils and reduce the heat to the lowest setting. Salt slightly. Cover with the lid slightly ajar to let the steam escape and cook for about 60 minutes. Be very careful the lentils do not stick to the bottom of the pan, so stir occasionally and add more water if necessary. You are looking for a creamy, delicate consistency.
When the lentils are softish, remove the onion, lightly break up the lentils with a potato masher and add the carrots and potatoes. Continue cooking. About 10 minutes before serving, add the broccoli.
Meanwhile make the hot oil, known as tarka. Heat the olive oil and add the asafoetida, cumin and chillies. When the chillies start to darken, add the onion to brown. Add the mustard seeds which should start to pop. Finally, add the garlic. Pour this mixture into the dal. Season with salt to finish and perhaps a touch of lemon. Garnish with coriander leaves and serve with flatbreads.