This dish was served to Joe and me by our good friend, culinary collaborator and desi political blogger LeftyProf. It’s South Indian comfort food: warming, filling, simple and healthy.
After a week without food (and yes, it really is Crohn’s, with a possible but yet-to-be-confirmed side of celiac disease), I was in need of exactly this dish… there’s a reason they call it comfort food, you know?
So. Here’s what you do, and LP, please correct me if I’ve gotten anything wrong. Your ingredients:
Three tomatoes, diced
Four inches of ginger, peeled and jullienned as fine and thin as you can get it
One large onion or two small onions finely sliced in half-moons
Four or five small green chillies chopped finely
Boil moong dal, as much as you want to make, in a large pot with plenty of water, for 30-40 minutes.
Slice one large onion (or two small ones) into half-moons. Sweet onions are good for this dish. Brown them ever so slightly in the bottom of a second pan. (Do not throw the onions into the pot of dal, like Joe did.) As soon as the onions get a hint of brown on them, throw in the ginger and give it a few minutes in the pan. Add the tomatoes and green chillies, and cook until the tomatoes start to get soft.
Empty the pan of vegetables into the pot of dal and mix. Salt to taste (you can also do this on the plate). Serve with rice or roti.
As our host demonstrated to us, you can also add a kick by serving raw whole green chillies with this. Pick thin ones, and bite off the very tip, then follow it with a bite of dal. I couldn’t try it without risking Crohn-ly unpleasantness, but the guys tell me that this method gives you an initial rush of heat from the pepper that’s immediately cut by the dal, so that the heat achieves a pleasant balance over the course of the meal. Joe liked this so much that I think he’ll be eating green chillies with his spaghetti and meatballs soon.
You’ll notice that I don’t give exact measurements on this recipe, or on anything I know by heart. In the words of the chef: ‘We don’t measure, are you fucking kidding me?’ It’s the Indian version of the motto my college friends Nancy and Maribel used to shout across the dorm: ‘Mexicans don’t measure!’
Other ethnic groups who do not, I am told, measure: African-Americans, Ghanians, North Carolinians, Texans, Taiwanese, Afghans, and the French. In fact, I’d wager that anyone who cooks by heart scorns the little metal spoons– I know I do when I’m making my grammy’s dishes. Grammy measures, but her units of measurement are dabs of dough and pinches of salt. But so many of the American cooks I know are almost obsessive about measurement– is it a teaspoon of salt, or a half a teaspoon?
I think this is an expression of caution and unfamiliarity. When I’m following one of Jaffrey’s recipes, lord knows I’m the queen of the little metal spoons, carefully counting out my teaspoons and tablespoons. But I’ve found, over the course of writing this blog, that as my comfort level increases and I become more confident in the kitchen, I’m more and more content to leave the little metal spoons in their drawer. It’s about whether you own the dish, or the dish owns you. I think there’s something to be said for following recipes exactly the first time around, especially if you are unfamiliar with the cuisine from which you’re cooking. Once you start to get the hang of it, though, you can improvise, edit, and get a feel for what you’re trying to accomplish– and the spoons become irrelevant. Maybe when I’ve been making Indian food as long as LeftyProf has, I’ll forsake them entirely.
In the meantime, though, I’ll try to relax a little more in the kitchen, and remember that no one has a monopoly on the ‘correct’ recipe– and it’s improvisation and experimentation that evolve into the regional and cultural variations that make food exciting. After all, who’d want to live in a world where you can’t try both Texan and Carolinian barbecue?