“How many?” my mother-in-law, Punna, asks, arching her eyebrow. She holds up a few chilies, the amount she had planned to put in. I say, “I can handle the heat. Growing up in a suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota, I never imagined I’d be standing in a kitchen in India discussing how many chilies to put into the tadka, a base for dal made of onions, tomatoes and spices.
There are many types of dal, made of lentils or beans: mung dal, lobia dal, urad dal, masoor dal, rajma dal, toor dal, chana dal, and others that are only made in particular states of the Indian subcontinent. To my recollection, I’d never even eaten Indian food until I moved to New York City, where my culinary palate expanded to encompass the cuisines of places I’d never visited, countries halfway across the world.
When I married an Indian man, a Punjabi who grew up in the tea gardens of northeast India, I had already embarked on my own spice road. I loved green curry from the Thai take-out place near my Upper West Side apartment, and regularly frequented the local Indian joint for dal makhani, a rich lentil curry. Jaidev, my husband, told me that my favorite Indian dish originates from the Punjab region on the boarders of what are now India and Pakistan—the area where his family hails from. “It’s spicier in India,” he told me.
Years later, after nine trips to India, I am finally in Punna’s kitchen in a high-rise flat in Bangalore, in the temperate southern state of Karnataka where she has retired, learning how to cook dal. Not the kind of dal you find at Indian restaurants, which typically serve heavy dal makhani with huge dollops of butter. We are cooking rajma dal, a north Indian dish made with kidney beans. The homemade version is healthy and uses only a little bit of oil, and far less heat. “Home food is light, not like in restaurants,” Punna says. “You can eat and eat and not gain kilos.”
In Punna’s kitchen there are jars and bags of spices I’ve never seen before, bright yellows and oranges and deep hues of red, a sunset trapped in her cupboard. Her refrigerator has a raw chicken, lean and bony, not like the plump American chicken. Here, everything is smaller, more flavorful. Rice has a certain richness, even without butter.
“Slowly, so it doesn’t burn,” Punna says, stirring the onions. They are finally turning brown, melting with the tomatoes and spices.
Dal is an Indian staple, a dish that is eaten almost every day. It is inexpensive and common, but sustaining. Many Indians of lesser means live on a daily diet of dal and rice. I have seen them on the sides of city streets, in the center of a median, cooking it in pots over a makeshift open fire. They eat with their hands, mixing grains of cooked rice with the lentils. The tumeric stains their fingernails yellow.
Jaidev eats like this when he is at home. He taught me to eat with my fingers, using the roti as a sort-of spoon. I am still awkward, clumsily folding the flat bread in half to scoop up the dal and rice. Punna makes this way of eating look refined, like an art form. She delicately piles the rice and dal together with her fingertips, slowly bringing it to her lips.
“Spicy?” Punna asks, studying me from across the table. “Just right,” I say. And it is—the perfect blend. It might have been my imagination, but I thought I saw a nearly imperceptible nod and flicker of a smile.
Recipe for punna’s rajma dal.