Dals and pulses are an essential part of most Indian daily meals. Not only for vegetarians, but also those who eat meat, will cook a Dal most of the days. A variety of beans and pulses are grown all over India, as part of the crop rotation. Pulses comprise a major chunk of the protein intake, and Dal is the split version of beans or pulses. When I emigrated to The Netherlands, and as always ate vegetarian 5-6 days a week. The relatives of my partner and some friends, started worrying over my eating habits and insisted I eat meat in The Netherlands, or I will not survive the winter, also that I will become weak and anaemic! Well, that did not happen, while I was the only one who did not catch colds or the seasonal flu that made its regular rounds and flattened these advisors every few months, landing them in bed!
Pulses in the Indian kitchen are used in the whole bean form, split with skin on (chilke wali dal) and split without the skin on (just dal). Hence, the kitchen shelves of our cupboards have an array of glass (now Pet) bottles filled with 12-14 sorts of these pulses, ready at hand. Many indigenous smaller beans that are not grown in other countries are a part of the diet, especially in the rural villages. Pidgeon pea- Tuvar or Arhar as it is called in North India is a staple in many regions. Moth or Matki beans are smaller brown-skinned cousins of the Mung beans (which produce the Chinese bean sprouts), along with the super protein and vitamin-rich Horse gram locally called Kuleeth / Gahat- which can be assigned the trendy name of a “super-food”. These are very region-specific, even within India. Grass pea, Lathyrus sativus L, is another variety that is similar to marrow peas, we call them black peas/ Kala vatana, but are smaller is another meaty delicious staple. Plus a few more that are only familiar to the Konkan region in the west coast- Vaal, which is an heirloom variety, with locality-specific fame of the region they are grown in. Thus, when it is harvested, Maharashtrian families clamour to get the best, famous ones and buy them in quantities to store the whole year-round. For the vegetarians of Maharashtra, this is their Sunday treat in place of meat! They are soaked overnight, then tied in a muslin cloth and covered under a brass saucepan. After 2 days they have 0.5cm sprouts. it is a bonding ritual for the family to sit around a large thali, and pinch the beans gently to make them pop out of their skins. Thereafter it is made into a delicious curry with a thick sauce, or steam-cooked with freshly grated coconut, green chillies and Goda masala. Vaal has a slight bitter element, so a little lump of jaggery is added to sweeten it. Just thinking of it makes me drool!
North India uses larger beans such as red Kidney beans, which are used to cook the scrumptious Rajma and chickpeas, along with Black gram – Urad, which is a family of the green mungbeans again, that helps to create a creamy Dal Makhani or Maharani dal. In Maharashtra, where I come from, more of the smaller beans are used as many are grown locally. In most families, beans are regularly sprouted at home, in rotation, to be added to every meal. Called “usal” these lend an array of recipes using them steamed, then stir-fried with spices or made into a curry which can be eaten with the Chapatti or rice.
Misal is one such one-dish meal, very popular and readily available in many streetside eateries. This spicy red-hot curry is made from sprouted moth beans, served in a bowl to which raw onions, tomatoes, fresh coriander, and crispy fried Sev made from chickpea flour is added for a crunch. Accompanied by small soft buns called Laadi-pav to sop up the curry! Eateries and cities like Pune, Nashik, and Kolhapur, have become famous for this one speciality, with customers queuing to get in for breakfast or lunch. It delivers a punch and is a taste bomb! I often find myself, meticulously planning to make one, by first ordering the Farsan or Sev crispies online from an Indian store, while simultaneously soaking the beans to start the sprouting process. (See my Food Stories- Making Sprouts at home). And the day after the box of crispies are delivered- Misal is made, and I just cannot wait to sit down and enjoy it.
South India has one favourite dal that has delivered 100’s of recipes to their kitchens- the Black gram/ Urad. From breakfast to lunch, to snacks it is ever-present in a ground, paste or fermented form! Hoppers, Idlis, Dosas you have heard or eaten some by now. One of the most versatile pulses, that also has crept into the Surinamese kitchens far away in their yummy Bara. A fried bread, with a salty crispy crust and, a soft fragrantly spiced yellow bread-like interior. The Bihari indentured labour shipped away by the colonial overlords for sugar plantations carried this one Dal (which they spell as-Oerdie (instead of urad / or uddi) with them on this dangerous voyage. And it is yet a part of their cuisine to date. In turn, they brought it with them to The Netherlands. What a circuitous long journey one Dal can make!
Due to Dals and pulses, with the help of their ubiquitous pressure cookers, any Indian family, even with meagre resources, can whip up a quick meal for surprise guests. These add a variety to the meals each week, since not only are there many pulses to choose from, each with its distinctive taste and mouthfeel, but also because there are numerous ways to cook each Dal. The sheer versatility of the Dals and pulses are a treasure trove to explore. The kitchen is filled with magic if the cook is creative. The Indian cities now being cosmopolitan, cooks are influenced by other cultures and learn many more recipes from friends and office colleagues. Because, like the Italians, Indians talk about food at least a few minutes a day! If I rifle through my notes of old recipes, and the ones I cook from habit, I have about 128 recipes to choose from. Which ingredient can offer you this choice?
For the sustainability of the planet, we are on the right track of being aware of what we need to do to move away from meat as the source of protein. I am a purist, staying away from the processed “vegetable-based meat alternatives”. I do not like the terms used as vegetarian chicken, the vegetarian butcher, vegetarian sausages, as these psychologically yet keep you tied down to meat, and one remains meat obsessed. Just call it by the name as we move into a more vegetarian way of eating pure plant-based real food, not processed. This is the future for us all, with super tasty experiences offered in the pulses to be devoured with their full nutritional potential in their natural form and not creating scarcity for those with lower incomes by processing them to feed the Meat-psychology and the laziness to cook. Nature has gifted us so much, enjoy it to its fullest and keep healthy.