I arrived in Chennai not via the Chennai Express, but arrive I did just in time to sleep away my long journey and wake up hungry, ready to eat my way through India. Well, not literally, but I was hungry. And my first meal — and now for sentimental reasons my favorite — was pongal (rice and lentils cooked together and seasoned with cashews, peppercorn and cumin). Sounds incredible, right?!
Placed before me was a spoonful of pongal and the question posed, “Do you need a fork?” caught me slightly off-guard, but not completely. I simply hadn’t contemplated eating utensils in my pre-trip thoughts. Have I ever thought about eating utensils except perhaps when considering their proper placement in relationship to the napkin, place mat and plate? Truthfully, no. In my various travels to foreign destinations it’s never crossed my mind to wonder whether I would use a fork at mealtime, but only when and from where would my next meal be coming. Let’s be honest. I’ve got a lot more to worry about with the food going into my mouth than to stress about the vehicle for getting it there. And worry I didn’t my entire India trip; I had the most vigilant food guardians surrounding me at all times to ensure no dairy ever crossed my lips, a feat almost inconceivable for India.
Did I need a fork? I quickly scanned the place settings of my table companions, saw no known utensil whose express purpose is for food delivery and my immediate response was, “No, I’m fine!” and that was that. Question answered, my fingers immediately assumed their new role as supplier of all sustenance and as they bent to their task something marvelous happened. I experienced my food. I’m not talking about holding a slice of pizza with your hand or grabbing a cookie out of the jar, or even biting into an apple as the juice careens over your knuckles. I’m talking tactile connection. Suddenly my fingertips were reaching, gathering, forming and providing each morsel to my mouth. As my food-laden fingers bumped into my bottom lip, I smiled, wondering to myself if this is the euphoria babies must feel as they touch and taste their way through the world? Perhaps, yes, and then just as they are turning their personal corner on adeptness, we thrust a spoon into their messy fingers, forcing distance between food and the one feeding.
Every single meal I experienced in India was a meal I vividly remember. Every single one. While I cannot tell you the specific names of the foods and dishes I ate, I can tell you how they felt: their consistency or crust and what my fingertips learned during our shared culinary journey. How differently the foods of Chennai felt compared to the dishes of Delhi. How certain spices ignited the sensitive skin just underneath my nails and how that ignition sent an immediate signal to my tastebuds, who started salivating in those nano-seconds just before wrist arch and finger liftoff.
Now that I’m back home I’m much more relaxed about utensils and their relevance on our dinner table. I’m much more interested in how I prepare myself to receive it.
- Red Lentils - 1/2 cup
- Water - 2 cups
- Ground Turmeric - 1/4 tsp
- Salt - pinch
- Safflower or Vegetable Oil - 1 T
- Ground Cumin - 1/4 tsp
- Asafetida (optional) - pinch
- Ground Coriander - 1/4 tsp
- Red Onion - 1/2 cup
- Tomato - 1/2 cup, chopped or pureed
- Chile Powder - pinch
Soak the lentils for 15 minutes. Drain. In a small saucepan combine lentils, water, salt and turmeric and bring to a boil. Cook until it's the consistency you desire - if you want soupier dal, remove from heat before the water cooks down. (If you prefer a slightly thicker dal, leave it alone until the water cooks down to the consistency you desire.) Whenever you reach your desired consistency, remove the lentils from the heat and set to the side.
Meanwhile, heat the oil in a small skillet. Add cumin. As soon as it crackles, which will be quickly, add the coriander and asofetida*. You'll need to move fast and keep everything in motion so your spices don't burn; you're simply melding together flavors. To this spicy blend, add the chopped onion and stir to coat. Cook until your onion is browned then add the tomatoes. Stir and cook down this mixture until the tomatoes have become well-absorbed into the onion & spice mixture. It will look a bit like chunky (because of the onions) tomato paste. Combine the tomatoes with the cooked lentils. Stir and heat on low to mix the two into one completed dish.
Enjoy with a side of rice or naan (I would definitely click on that link to get my favorite recipe) or roti or paratha! And as soon as I've tested a couple of times, I'll share how to make paratha. I've even got video with Devyani :)
*A note about the asafetida: This is not a spice commonly found on the shelves of Americans, but exists in abundance in every Indian cupboard, and adds depth to many of their dishes, particularly lentil-based ones. If this is the only time you're going to prepare this dish, borrow a pinch from me. You can leave it out, but you will be missing what Indians would consider a critical ingredient.
If you're unsure about this stinky stuff know that many (the great Google gods) sources recommend using asafetida:
- as an anti-flatulent
- to aid digestion
- to alleviate cold symptoms
- to combat anxiety
- as an antimicrobial
- as a remedy for bronchitis and asthma
- BONUS: to ward off evil spirits