Daal-roti or daal-bhaat (lentils and rice/bread) are to Indians as meat and potatoes are for an American from the Midwest. Every household has a recipe for daal and it can be cooked in several different ways, the basic one being boiling it with turmeric and salt and then adding the tadka/chhownk/baghaar (tempered seasoning) to it. During the early days of the British Raj, when our erstwhile rulers took thousands of Indian people, mostly from South and some from the North and East as cheap labor to their Caribbean colonies, the migrants took whatever they could with them to survive in a foreign land. Being a staple in their native land, lentils were among the first things they packed. However, after their stocks were exhausted, they found that food items from India were very expensive to buy in their new land. Only the rich could afford them. Gradually they started modifying their recipes to cook with whatever was available locally. After several generations of these migrant workers had lived and cooked in their new land, their dishes gradually became foreign cousins of their Indian versions.
Among the lentils, motor daal (split pea lentils) were widely available in both Africa and the Caribbean. You will find many recipes there which are very similar to Indian daal. In Trinidad, Guyana, Malaysia and Burma, motor daal is cooked in a similar manner to sambar in India. In Malaysia yellow split pea sambar is made with vegetables and then enriched with ground nuts. In Burma the same daal is given a different twist with tomatoes and okra. In South Africa they add yogurt and butter to it but tastes like a rich sambar which is again made from yellow split peas.
Motor daal is not very common in Bengali cuisine. It is cooked less often than moong daal (yellow lentil) or musur daal (red lentil). When it was cooked at all, it often had seasonal vegetables added (as I’ve described before, Indian cuisine used to be very seasonally oriented and you added things according to what was growing in its natural season). The recipe is my mother’s and was mainly made in winter, when crisp white mulo (radish) and dhonepata (cilantro) are at their best. Eaten quite simply with rice and a pickle, it tastes just divine .
Motor daal: 1 cup
Mulo/radish or turnip:1/1/2 cup cubed
Jeera/cumin seeds: 1 tsp
Bay leaf: 2 nos.
Dhonepata/cilantro: a handful
Turmeric: ½ tsp
Green chili: 2-3 nos.
Dry red chili: 2 nos.
Salt to taste
- Wash the daal with several changes of water and then boil with enough water with the turmeric.
- Chop the turnip or the radish into ¾” sized cubes and cook it in the microwave for 8-10 minutes and then drain the water.
- Add the radishes to daal when the daal is ¾ done.
- Add the green chilies as well.
- Add salt to taste. Boil until the daal is cooked. Check the salt and adjust it accordingly.
- The daal should not be a mush or retain the structure completely. It should be sort of half and half. Half broken you can say.
- Heat up the oil and add the cumin seeds to it. Once they darken a little bit, add the bay leaves and the dried red chilies.
- Once all of them darken, add the seasoning to the daal and immediately cover the pot to retain the flavor.
- Add freshly chopped cilantro before you serve (it’s a must).
PS: You can add a pinch of sugar if you want. I don’t but some people like a hint of sweetness in their daal.
Last time when I went to the Asian supermarket, I saw something very strange. It looked like turnip but not the usual turnip I am used to. I brought it home and ate a slice of it to get the taste. It’s tasted very mulo-like and added it to the daal. Traditionally it is made with the regular radish. The only difference I found that the turnip I bought was less stinky than the mulo which might be a bonus for many people.
You can eat it with either roti (Indian flat bread) or rice. I had it with sun dried tomato focaccia and it tasted wonderful.