A cuisine enunciated by the aromas of tradition, the warmth of hospitality and the flavors of bonds formed over the kitchen stove, Pakistani cooking embodies the elements of forming relationships with the help of food. Dinner or lunch is the time of day when the entire family gets together to discuss the days’s activity over a hearty meal, prepared with all the flavors to satiate their appetite. Essentials on the table are; rice and/or freshly cooked roti (flat wheat bread), vegetables, any meat curry and the most important dish that balances diet for the day – Daal. Made from stripping the lentils of its outer hulls and split, through the process of stewing, no Pakistani meal or culinary education can be complete without the inclusion of daal.
Popular throughout the subcontinent, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, daal is mostly eaten with rice or roti or even on its own (my own preference). All these three South Asian countries may have similar food, due to the influence of their history and proximity, but they greatly differ in styles and tastes. The main difference is brought about by the use of different spices. While Pakistani cooking relies on mostly red chilli powder, coriander powder and turmeric powder, Indian food has a distinct taste due to the addition of asafoetida or hing, as it is known as Hindi. The look of the dish may be the same, but the taste is world’s apart. Even though the term daal can be attributed to the old Subcontinental language of Sanskrit, meaning to split, the taste heavily differs across the border. Personally, for me daal is comfort food. A full bowl of daal for lunch keeps the hunger at bay the whole day long. High in protein, it is an essential part of a balanced diet where the intake of meat is minimal. Best part of all, it is very low on calories.
For a recipe to attain greatness, it has to have an element of pizzazz. To add zing to daal, sizzling “tarka” is essential. Tarka, simply put, is a process of roasting aromatic cumin seeds, red chillies and garlic in steaming hot oil, and pouring it all over the daal. The sound of the sizzles and fragrance of the crackling spices will embrace you into a culinary whirlwind, a place from where returning would be difficult. One attempt at this recipe and it is sure to stay in your family for generations to come.
- 1 cup lentils (red or yellow, known in Asian stores as Masoor or Mung lentils)
- 2 cups water
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tsp red chilli powder
- 1 tsp coriander powder
- 1/2 tsp turmeric powder
- Few curry leaves
- 3 tbsp vegetable oil
- 3 red chillies, sliced thinly
- 3 cloves garlic, sliced thinly
- 2 tsp cumin seeds
- In a saucepan, add the lentils and water and leave to soak for between 30-60 minutes. (Note: the longer it is soaked, the easier it is to strip their outer hull during cooking)
- Before putting the saucepan on the stove, add the salt, turmeric, red chilli and coriander powder and stir. Throw in the curry leaves
- Put the daal on medium heat to cook. Keep stirring to prevent help the process of stripping the outer hulls and dissolving the lentils into water
- The lentils should cook in about 20-30 minutes, depending on how long they have been soaked. If the lentils are becoming too dry and lumpy, add more water, about 1/2 cup. Once cooked, daal should not be too runny and not to thick either and the round shape of the lentils should almost disappear
- Take off the heat when cooked through
- In a separate pan, add the vegetable oil over medium heat
- Once the oil begins to smoke, add the red chillies, garlic and cumin seeds to roast in the oil (Note: Be careful at this stage as the hot oil tends to sprinkle out of the pan when the spices are added)
- Immediately the garlic will begin to brown and the red chillies and cumin seeds will become a shade darker
- Take off the heat and immediately pour it over the daal. If roasted properly, the tarka should still be sizzling as it hits the daal
- Mix it in with a spoon so all the flavors are infused together
- Garnish and serve
The essence of Pakistani cooking is using pungent flavors to subtly enhance the taste of the food. It is simple yet wholesome cooking at its finest. It’s beauty lies in the fact that through food, age-old traditions are kept alive, where grandmothers pass on the secrets of their culinary expertise to their grandchildren to keep the flame and passion for food alive. Full-bodied flavors and aromatic; the best way to describe the secrets of making the perfect tarka daal. Venture out into a new culinary realm with this foray into Pakistani cooking.