In India the word daal is commonly used for lentils, a generic term used for an enormous number of lentils which range in colour from ivory white and yellow – both deep and pale – to pale red, olive green, brown, maroon and black. Lentils to India are as the meat loaf is to Europe and the United States. Ranging from yellow and red to deep black, these tiny disc-shaped members of the legume family are eaten in some form at least twice a day in ‘any self-respecting Indian household,’ according to Kavita Mehta, founder of the web-based Indian Foods Co. In fact, India is the world’s biggest producer and consumer of lentils, which are known here as daal. Cultivated from the earliest days of civilisation, lentils are somewhat indispensable to the Indian diet. Daal with rice either as a separate dish or combined and cooked as in the khichri (kedgeree), can be termed the national dish of India. It is a popular food of the rich as well as the poor, ruling the kitchen in all corners of the country, though different regions prefer different tastes, spices and combinations. The phrase, ‘sharing daal-roti’ has passed into our lexicon as a metaphor for bonding.

Lentils are of several kinds and each variety is as important as others. K.T. Achaya – eminent oil chemist, food scientist, nutritionist and food historian – in his book Indian Food: A Historical Companion (Oxford University Press; 1994), mentions that pulses of several kinds such as maashs (urad) mansura (masoor), mudga (moong) and kalaya (peas or matar) are mentioned in the Yajurveda. About a century later the Markandeya Purana and Vishnu Purana refer to chickpea (chana) as well. From Yajurveda onwards the three pulses masha, mudga and masura are evidently the most commonly and constantly used grain. Reference to masha occurs in the Rigveda. The dish kulmasha, which appears to have been masha dressed with a pat of gur (jaggery) and a few drops of oil, has the connotation of a poor man’s food in the Vedic period. It may have resembled the North Indian ghugni of the present day, a lightly dressed parched gram which is soaked overnight, steamed and flavoured with salt, lime juice, green chillies, chopped coriander leaves, chopped raw onions and a sprinkle of dry chaat masala powder. All the ingredients are tossed together and mixed properly. Rama apparently favoured a soaked raw daal preparation called kosumalli, consisting of diced cucumber, a sprinkle of coconut – all of it tossed in lemon juice.

The early literature of the Buddhists and the Jains (400 BC) reveals the use of new pulses kalaya (matar), adhaki (arhar or tuvar) and chanaka (chana), stated to have come from Alexandria. After 350 BC rajmasha (rajma) made its appearance and before the millennium ended and the Christian era began, a taboo against masha was announced. Pulses had been in use for the preparation of some sweets dating back to the late Buddhist period, such as mandaka (now called mande) – a large paratha stuffed with sweetened pulse paste and baked (as now) on an inverted pot.

Photo credit: HT Photo

In the first few centuries southern India made good use of pulses in different novel ways. Among the several pulses used in the southern cuisine of those days, two have found frequent mention. These were the kadalai (chickpea), which has been described as the bean which was fried in sweet-smelling oil and the kollu or mudhira (horse gram), which grew in the forest tract along with beans and lentils. Unfortunately urad, which is the most commonly used pulse of the south finds no mention in the literature of those days.

On Vinayaka Chaturthi in South India, salted preparation of whole soaked chickpea called sundal was necessary for the festival. In 2000 BC at several feasts only vadas were eaten and on purnamashi day and on deepavali sweets stuffed paratha (poli) were eaten. At the Tirupati temple dedicated to Lord Venkateshwara, after offering to the deity, pilgrims were given a prasad of urad laddus.

Achaya’s book describes how in the temple kitchen 30 cooks remained busy making approximately 70,000 laddus every day, for which 3 tonnes of urad daal, 6 tonnes of sugar and 2.5 tonnes of ghee, besides good amounts of raisins, cashew nuts and cardamom, were used.

Classical literature of India has interesting accounts on the use of lentils. King Someshwar of Kalyana in Madhya Pradesh, in his Manasollasa written about 1130 AD, mentions dishes in which pulses are the base while some were made using pulses with cereals. Vidalapaka was made from a mix of five pulse flours (chana, rajma, masoor, moong and parched tuvar), seasoned with rock salt, turmeric and asafoetida and cooked on slow heat. Similarly parika appears to have resembled the bonda of today, being described as cakes of besan, spiced with salt, pepper, asafoetida and sugar and finally fried in oil. Pulses were blended with vegetables or meat to prepare flavourful curries and this practice was much in vogue. Thus moong daal was seasoned with pieces of lotus-stem and chironji seeds, asafoetida and green ginger, fried in oil and boiled to a curry to which might have been added fried brinjal pieces, mutton pieces or even marrow, the dish being finished with black pepper and dry ginger. Dhosaka (dosa) and idarika (idli) were made only with pulses.

A 16th century work lists foods of the Gangetic plains as sattu (the flour of roasted pulses), and pulse preparations like bara (vada), pakauri (pakoda), identified as a boiled pakoda and the rolled up khandavi pancake, now identified with Gujarat. In Bihar several dishes were made using daal such as, bara – a patty of fried pulses, phulaura, which is like the present day dahivada, thilauri – balls of urad – or moong daal with sesame seeds, dried in the sun, and deep-fried. Kachauris were wheat cakes filled with spiced lentil.

In the east, however, masoor daal is a favoured food for the ill and recuperating and Bengal favours chholar daal (chana daal) for its various preparations during special social occasions and festivities.

Whether it is Gujarat in western India or U.P. in northern India, Bengal in eastern India or Tamil Nadu in southern India, a meal is not complete without a dish of daal made in different ways.

Lentils are also considered first meal for the mourners. Why should lentils be the mourner’s food? Because they are round like a wheel and mourning (sorrow) is a wheel that touches every spot in turn (i.e. every person experiences sorrow and loss in life). And the second reason is also equally symbolic and related to the shape and look of the pulses. Just as lentils have no serrated edge and are smooth along the circumference, so are mourners who do not open their mouths (i.e. are silent) in greeting during the mourning period. It is also customary in the Muslim community to feed khichri, a dish of rice and chana daal to mourners after the burial.

R.V. Smith in his column on lentils mentions a long forgotten poem called Daal ki Faryad. It started with the words – ‘Ek ladki bagarthi hai daal, daal kehti hai, main kabhi hare-bhare kheton mein lehrati thi’, and then went on to lament that one day a cruel contractor came and took away the pulses which he locked up in the godown to sell. The daal then tells the girl, alas what a day has come, after frolicking in the fields, today I am boiling in a pot on a roasting fire and you are adding to my misery by giving me a baghar to make me tastier to the palate. The girl hears the daal lament and bursts into tears as its plight has hit a tender chord in her heart. She stops applying the baghar and sits down to write a poem on what the daal has gone through. It was a touching poem and came to be known as Daal ki Faryaad.

It was winter. The ponds were all frozen. At the court, Akbar asked Birbal, “Tell me Birbal! Will a man do anything for money?” Birbal replied, “Yes”. The emperor ordered him to prove it. The next day Birbal came to the court along with a poor Brahmin who merely had a penny left with him. His family was starving. Birbal told the king that the Brahmin was ready to do anything for the sake of money. The king ordered the Brahmin to be inside the frozen pond all through the night without clothes if he needed the money. The poor Brahmin had no choice. The whole night he was inside the pond, shivering. He returned to the durbar the next day to receive his reward. The king asked, “Tell me Brahmin! How could you withstand the freezing cold temperature all through the night?” The innocent Brahmin replied, “I could see a faintly glowing light a kilometre away and I withstood with that ray of light.” Akbar refused to pay the Brahmin his reward saying that he had got warmth from the light and withstood the cold and that was cheating. The poor Brahmin could not argue with him and so returned disappointed and empty-handed. Birbal tried to explain to the king but the king was in no mood to listen to him. Thereafter, Birbal stopped coming to the durbar and sent a messenger to the king saying that he would come to the court only after cooking his khichri. As Birbal did not turn up even after five days, the king himself went to Birbal’s house to see what he was doing. Birbal had lit the fire and kept the pot of uncooked khichri one metre away from it. Akbar questioned him “How will the khichri get cooked with the fire one metre away? What is wrong with you Birbal?”

Birbal who was busy ‘cooking’ the khichri, replied, “Oh my great King of Hindustan! When it was possible for a person to receive warmth from a light that was a kilometre away, then it is possible for this khichri, which is just a metre away from the source of heat, to get cooked.” Akbar realised his mistake and rewarded the poor Brahmin.

There are many such stories related to lentils like the one that I shall now recount. However, I am not sure of its authenticity. The story goes that when Aurangzeb imprisoned Shah Jahan he was asked to choose one grain, which can be served to him. Upon the advice of his daughter Jahan Ara he chose Bengal gram. A wise reply, befitting a king. Bengal gram or chana daal can be prepared in different ways and in different garbs without making its eater bored; the preparations range from savouries to curries to dry dishes to breads and finally to sweets.

It is often said that in the court of the king of Avadh a cook was employed only to cook lentils. The cook laid a condition, which specified that the king should eat the prepared dish immediately and not leave it lying to make it cold. Well it so happened that the king could not come as decided.

The royal cook was so upset that he threw away the lentil dish and walked out saying – “Yeh mooh aur masoor ki daal”, meaning you are not worth this lentil.

Adas Tannur (Oven Lentils)

Travel is an adventure. You meet interesting people on flight. During one of my trips to the USA my co-traveller was an Arab lady. Friendly exchanges on cuisine gave me this recipe.

What you need

Lentils (any) 1cup/ 250gm/ 8oz
Raw jackfruit, peeled and cut into cubes 2cups/ 500gm/ 16oz
Swiss chard 1 bunch
Salt, cumin, caraway, coriander 1tsp/ 5gm/ 1⁄6oz
Garlic 1tbsp/ 15gm/ ½oz
Water (or preferred veg. stock) 4 cups/ 1ltr/ 2lb

Make and serve

1. Boil jackfruit in water to make it tender, remove from heat and drain. Shallow fry, to light golden, by sprinkling salt, remove and keep aside.
2. Put 1 cup of lentils into a pot with 4 cups of water.
3. The Swiss chard leaves are separated from the leaf rib and sliced into ribbons, roughly 1 inch wide and 3 inches long.
4. Put the chard into the pot of lentils; if there is not enough water in the pot do not hesitate to add another cup or two. Remember this is a slow cooking dish. The water will evaporate but you don’t want the leaves or the lentils to burn so make sure there is plenty of liquid! (If veg. stock is desired over water by all means add that instead!) Check the state of the liquids in the pot every hour, just to make sure nothing is drying out.
5. Now the fried jackfruit is added along with the spices.
6. The entire dish is then mixed together and put on dum.

Excerpted with permission from Pull of Pulses: Full of Beans, Salma Husain and Vijay Thukral, Niyogi Books.