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Beyond Curry: Daal Tadka

Daal Tadka. [Photograph: Prasanna Sankhe]

If there is one dish that's common through the extreme diversity of Indian cuisine, it's daal (lentils). Rich and poor, festival fare or frugal meal, it's the great leveller of Indian food.

In India, the word daal refers to the lentil as well as the finished dish. There are about five or six commonly used daals and countless dishes that we create out of them.

In fact, so popular is daal in Indian cuisine that the term daal-chaval (lentils and rice) is commonly used as a synonym for food.

For most of vegetarian India, it is a vital source of protein. And a dish that finds its way to the table every day, sometimes for all three meals. We also love to cook our meats with lentils. And some delicious, robust dishes emerge from this wonderful pairing.

Its mild, understated nature makes daal a blank canvas of sorts, for the various regions of India to embellish in their own unique way. In fact, there are so many ways to make daal; so many combinations and cultural variations that it could take you a good part of the year to eat your way through them all, without a hint of routine setting in.

A simple starting point to the world of daals is the daal tadka.

To give a dish a tadka is simply to temper it with ghee (clarified butter) and spices. When the spices enter the hot ghee, they infuse their rich flavors into it. This heady, perfumed oil is then poured over the daal where it spits and sizzles quite dramatically as it permeates the calm yellow concoction.
The heady aroma and the wild hiss and sputter of the tadka is kitchen theater at its best. And the main act, you will soon discover is worthy of many encores.

About the author: Denise Dsilva Sankhe is a writer & creative director by profession. But that's only when she isn't eating her way across India. She recreates this delicious cuisine in her Mumbai home, which she shares with her newly-married husband, who has long since given up his determination to have salads for dinner.

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