My mother-in-law, a sweet bespectacled lady with an infectious chuckle, arrived last week. She stepped into my fifty square foot kitchen and immediately transformed it into her own space. The spices were rearranged, the lentil shelves were cleaned out and essentials like garlic, ginger, onion and cilantro were restocked. We went shopping for bags of basmati rice, toor dal, tamarind, curry leaves and green chillies to ensure that we would have sufficient quantities for all the cooking that was about to take place.
Almost unawares, I found myself peeling, chopping, stirring, taking hurried notes and even faster pictures. Here was my opportunity I realized, to become an expert. Twelve weeks of immersion in South Indian (more precisely, Andhra) cooking. In my own kitchen. And since I’ve been cooking every day for the last two years, I had a foundation to build upon. Questions I needed answered. Cooking tips that I had been yearning for. Recipes transmitted through phone that needed deciphering. The best part was that I was going to have the memory of taste.
In a week, I am already up to my elbows in recipes and pictures, and if I don’t document these, the backlog will grow alarmingly large. I plan to write a recipe every day and update some of my earlier posts. Whatever makes it into this blog becomes worthy of consideration for our meals at home. These recipes, easily accessible online, are the ones that I turn to when I want to review things in a pinch and begin cooking. This helps me to further refine the recipes. It’s a happy outcome.
I’m beginning with Tomato Dal, a soupy lentil preparation made with toor dal that has a traditional Andhra dal tempering: urad dal, mustard seeds, cumin seeds, dried red chillies and asafetida. The surprise ingredient is methi seeds in the tempering. My mother-in-law says that asafetida is usually used in sour dal preparations like this one, and that chana dal, another common tempering ingredient in her cooking, is never used in dals.
1 cup toor dal, boiled
1 cup onions, chopped
1/2 lb or two large plum tomatoes, chopped
6-7 whole green chillies, optional, but adds great flavor
1 tsp of solid deseeded tamarind fruit paste (use Swad fruit paste sold at Patel’s)
1 cup loosely packed cilantro leaves, roughly chopped
A few curry leaves
For the tempering, called tarka:
1/4 tsp methi seeds
1 tsp urad dal
1-2 dried red chillies
½ tsp mustard seeds
½ tsp cumin seeds
a pinch of asafetida
1 tbsp of ghee
Salt to taste
- Heat the ghee in a pot. As the ghee heats up add the tarka spices one by one (in the order listed) and allow them to sizzle for a couple of seconds. Now add the green chillies if using.
- Add the onions and stir-fry for a few minutes. Add the turmeric powder as the onions fry.
- Add the tomatoes, and the tamarind. Cook for a few minutes until the tomatoes are a little soft. Add the cilantro and salt. Cook for another minute or so.
- Now add the boiled dal and sufficient water for desired thin soup-like consistency.
- Bring to boil and simmer on low to medium heat for about ten minutes. Add the curry leaves while the dal is simmering. Serve hot with rice.