If the tandoori chicken and the butter chicken (and its European relative, the chicken tikka masala) are the most
famous Indian dishes in the world never to be cooked in Indian home kitchens, then there must surely be a vegetarian candidate for the same category.
I think I have found it: it is the black dal so beloved of Indian restaurants in India and everywhere else in the world.
When it comes to black dal I have to come right out and say that it is entirely out of my area of experience. I am a Gujarati and Gujaratis, in common with the rest of India, think of dal as being vaguely yellow in colour. We never had black dal at home when I was growing up and as far as I recall, most restaurants in Bombay in the Sixties and early Seventies also did not serve any dish that resembles the black dal so ubiquitous on today’s restaurant menus.
I always imagined that the dal makhani that we come across in restaurant menus is a Punjabi home dish. A little research suggests that I am not entirely wrong. But I am not right either.
The key to dal makhani is the lentil itself, the humble urad, called black gram in English or masha in Sanskrit. Of the 60 dals that are in common use in India (moong, chana, rajma, arhar/tuver etc), urad is among the most ubiquitous and is found in many parts of the country including the south.
But there are many kinds of urad. And one basic distinction is between whole urad and broken-up urad. My friend Gautam Anand, who is fast becoming a mainstay of this column, tells me that his mother remembers urad dal from Lahore in the pre-Partition era. But, the dal she remembers was not made with whole urad. She did not see this kind of lentil used in dal till she came across after the Partition.
Gautam’s theory is that the Punjabis of east Punjab and of Lahore did not make a whole urad dal. This was the specialty of Punjabis in Peshawar. Dhabas (there were relatively few restaurants in those days) sold a black dal made with whole urad and served with a few rotis.
When the Peshawaris came over after the Partition, they brought this dal with them. As many Peshawari Punjabis became restaurateurs, this was the dal they put on their menus.
But even if you dispute the distinction between the two kinds of urad, what is clear is that pre-Partition Punjabis did not put tomatoes in their dal. If they needed a souring agent, they used yoghurt.
Why is it then, that tomato puree is now regarded as an essential ingredient of black dal?
Our story now veers (as does the story of the tandoori chicken) to Delhi’s Daryaganj where Kundan Lal Gujral, who had come over after Partition, had opened Moti Mahal and made tandoori meat cooking famous.
I spoke to Monish Gujral, Kundan Lal’s grandson who now runs the Moti Mahal Delux chain. According to Monish, all of Kundan Lal’s great ideas emerged out of necessity. When he began worrying about his cooked chickens drying out, he searched for a sauce with which he could rehydrate them. His solution was the makhani or butter sauce that led to the creation of the butter chicken, made from bits of tandoori chicken that were in danger of drying out. Monish says that Kundan Lal then searched for a vegetarian option. Gautam maintains that in those days, urad dal was not considered a great banqueting dish. Chana dal was more respectable and in any case, caterers and restaurateurs were obsessed with so-called ‘shahi’ dishes in which the gravy was enriched with cream.
Gautam agrees with Monish that it was Kundan Lal who invented the latter day dal makhani though he suspects that it emerged out of a desire to do a shahi dal to go with the rich non-vegetarian food. Monish says it was even simpler. All Kundan Lal did was to take the black dal of his ancestors and to add his makhani sauce to it. After butter chicken came, his next invention was butter dal. (Think about it: chicken makhani, dal makhani! Obviously the dishes were meant to be regarded as members of the same family.)
I put this theory to Manjit Gill who is not only ITC’s corporate chef but is also extremely knowledgeable about the history of Indian cuisine. To my surprise, because hoteliers don’t like giving credit to each other, even Manjit conceded that the modern dal makhani was invented by Moti Mahal. Till that version of the dal appeared, says Manjit, nobody thought of putting tomatoes into dal and no Punjabi home cook had ever mixed cream and black dal.
I had an ulterior motive in speaking to Manjit. Though dal makhani is now a menu standard, the dal that has found international fame is ITC’s own Dal Bukhara. Foreigners come from all over the world to eat Dal Bukhara and ITC makes a fortune from its packaged Dal Bukhara which is sold all over the world.
So, is there a difference between dal makhani and Dal Bukhara?
Yes, there is.
Manjit is clear that without Moti Mahal there would be no Dal Bukhara. Punjabi home cooking has no such dal. It was Kundan Lal who taught Punjabi restaurant cooks that the addition of tomato and cream could turn a simple dish into a world famous delicacy.
But equally, there are important differences between the Moti Mahal dal and the Bukhara version. For a start, the Moti Mahal recipe (as published in Monish’s Moti Mahal’s Tandoori Trail) is a mixture of dals. It is only 50 per cent urad dal. The other 50 per cent is equally divided between rajma and chana dal. The Bukhara dal is all urad.
Manjit says that most restaurants follow the Moti Mahal recipe because the other dals add what chefs call ‘viscosity.’ (In simple English, this means that the resulting dal is thicker.) Moreover, the rajma adds a little colour.
The Bukhara dal gets its viscosity from slow cooking – something most restaurants don’t bother with. Like some ancient stock, it never stops cooking. The chefs cook it on a low flame overnight and then, never take it off the fire. When you order a Dal Bukhara, they simply ladle it out of the master pot. At most restaurants, dal makhani is cooked once a day and then taken off the fire. When you order it, they heat it up again and add cream and various other kinds of dairy fat and flavouring to tart it up before service. This is why black dal in other restaurants is often served much hotter than the Bukhara version.
There are other differences as well. Because Moti Mahal was a way for refugees to stand on their own feet after Partition, all its dishes emerged out of improvisation. Bukhara, on the other hand, is India’s most expensive restaurant (for Indian food at least) and so, has an obsession with the quality of the lentils, sourcing them from the best farmers and then worrying incessantly about the water it uses. Any chef will tell you that water is the key to good dal. But water varies from city to city and frequently, urban water is either over-chlorinated or, if you use your own filters, can taste slightly odd. ITC uses mineral water to standardise the taste of its Dal Bukhara at all its hotels.
The obsession with detail extends to the packaged version. When they first started selling the dal, they were surprised by the negative feedback. ITC chefs tried the canned dal and discovered that it really wasn’t very good. They could not understand this. They had made the dal to the traditional recipe.
It took some research to work out that the dal had reacted with the metal of the can and its taste had changed. So, now ITC refuses to can the dal and sells it in sachets which preserve the taste far better. (Though of course, you can buy canned black dal from a variety of other companies.)
If all this has fooled you into believing that I’m a great black dal fan, rest assured that my interest in the invention of this dish is purely academic. I do not like the restaurant version of black dal and each time I eat it, I can feel my arteries harden.
My own view, for what it’s worth, is that the chefs of the Fifties and Sixties (people like Kundan Lal) did for Indian restaurants what the likes of Escoffier did for French cuisine. They created dishes, they invented sauces that became kitchen standards (the makhani sauce, for instance) and they established the basic north Indian menu which remained largely unchanged for the rest of the 20th century.
But these dishes were creatures of their time. Just as Escoffier was God’s gift to the dairy and milling industries because all his dishes required cream, butter and flour, the great Indian chefs of the Fifties and Sixties pursued a goal that no longer seems very interesting to us: they wanted food that tasted ‘shahi’ or rich.
The basis of any ‘shahi’ dish is essentially, animal fat.Take away tandoori meat and much of mid-20th century Indian cuisine was about fat. Chefs cooked in lots of oil, they suffused their curries with animal fat and they loved dairy fat. When they made vegetarian dishes, they compensated for the lack of meat fat by adding cow fat in the form of butter, ghee and cream. That’s why dal makhani is full of cream and butter. (Kundan Lal’s recipe has one kg of dal, 500 ml of cream and a full kg of butter! Dal Bukhara is also something of a dairy product.)
I like to think that Indian chefs are now going back to their roots, to the traditional dishes of Indian cooking and to the food of our grandmothers who had no interest in feeding us ‘shahi’ meals. There is a greater emphasis on spicing (dal makhani and Dal Bukhara have hardly any spices) and a conscious effort to lighten the cuisine.
Which is great because all cuisines need to evolve. But as this evolution continues, we can still celebrate the dishes that have come to epitomise a certain kind of Indian restaurant cooking all over the world. And black dal, whether in its Moti Mahal avatar or in its currently fashionable Bukhara version, is one of the classics of 20th century Indian restaurant cuisine.
Dal makhani recipes From professional Chefs:
The Art of Fine Cooking by Arvind Saraswat
120g urad dal, 30g rajma (red kidney beans), 15g chana dal, salt, 100g butter, 75ml cream
The First Tempering: 125g ghee, 100g onions, 20g ginger, 10g green chillies, 125g tomatoes 10g red chilli powder
The Second Tempering: 25g ghee, 5g cumin, 15g garlic, asafoetida (a pinch), 5g fenugreek (kasoori methi)
The lentils: Pick, wash and soak overnight. Drain and replenish with fresh water (approx. 2 litres).
The first tempering: Peel, wash and chop onions. Scrape, wash and chop ginger. Remove stems, wash, slit, deseed and chop green chillies. Wash and chop tomatoes.
The second tempering: Peel and chop garlic.
Boil lentils in a handi, add salt and simmer until the dals are soft and the water is almost (not fully)
absorbed. Mash the lentils lightly with a ladle.
To prepare the first tempering, heat ghee in a pan, add onions and sauté over medium heat until light brown, add ginger and green chillies, sauté until the onions are brown. Then add tomatoes and fry until of a paste consistency (add a few tablespoons of water to this tempering to facilitate the process). Pour this tempering over the simmering lentils, bring to a boil, reduce to low heat and simmer until the fat comes to the surface.
To make the second tempering, heat ghee in another pan, add cumin and sauté over medium heat until it begins to crackle (approx. 15 seconds). Then add garlic and sauté for 30 seconds or until garlic becomes brown. Now add asafoetida, stir and pour this tempering over the simmering lentils immediately. Sprinkle fenugreek and mix thoroughly. Adjust the seasoning.
To Serve: Transfer the simmering dal to a bowl, add butter and cream, stir until fully mixed and serve with tandoori roti.
Note: This dal will have a muddy colour. To make it brighter – reddish brown – blanch the lentils before commencing the actual cooking, drain and replenish with fresh water. Then follow the above procedure.
All dals are covered and cooked. If excess water has been added inadvertently, remove the lid for a short period, increase the heat, boil to let the water evaporate and then revert to the usual procedure.
Preparation Time: 20 minutes
Cooking Time: 1 hour 40 minutes
From Tandoori Trail by Monish Gujral
Rich creamy dal in butter gravy
Black gram (urad dal), whole – 3 and 1/3 cups or 500g, Kidney beans (rajma) – 1 and 3/4 cups or 250g, Bengal gram (chana dal) – 1 and 3/4 cups or 250g, Milk – 5 cups or 1 lt, Tomato puree – 5 cups or 1 lt, Red chilli powder – 25g, Cumin (jeera) powder – 25g, Garam masala – 25g, Butter – 1 kg, Cream – 2 and 1/2cups or 500ml, Salt to taste
Pick and clean the black gram, kidney beans, and Bengal gram. Add salt and rub the mixture with both hands and then rinse with water. Soak the mixture in water overnight.
Take a heavy-based utensil, add the drained dal mixture and double the quantity of water; cook over low heat. Stir the mixture vigorously to mash it. Once it thickens, add milk and cook till the milk is absorbed completely.
Add tomato puree and all the spices. Cook till the gram and beans are tender (for about half an hour). Add butter and cook for another 10 minutes.
Add cream and mix well by stirring continuously.