I’ve been thinking about posting on dhal for a long time now, but Cynthia (of Tastes Like Home) did a dhal post last year, called Dal, Dhal, Dahl together with her column. Since she’s Guyanese, I find it strange that she left out the “Dholl” spelling that so captures the rounded vowel and emphasis of her native accent, but I’ll bypass that since her weekly column at the time was a great exposition on the subject of dhal. Not just in the Caribbean, but her exposure to the great varieties of dhals out there. Dhals are great, going well with rice or roti and a nice addition to the protein diet when you’re enjoying vegetarian.
No matter what you call it, and how you spell it though, for the traditional East Indian populations of Trinidad and Tobago and Guyana, there really is only one thing that goes by the name. So much so that it’s not just this one dish that’s called Dhal, but the yellow split pea that we use to make Dhal is called Dhal. No matter that dhal may be a term used to describe split pulses in general, we only give one pulse the honour. Even when it’s not cooked into dhal the dish, we call it dhal – dhalpuri, anyone? – I remember a family friend mentioned that her children loved macaroni and dhal and laughed at our the faces we made, telling us she stewed the dhal so it really did go well with macaroni.
But getting back to the more traditional, or recognised use of the yellow split pea – making dhal, the dish. I love dhal. I like it with sada roti. I can drink it like a soup. But most of all I love it with rice. I have memories of my grandmother, and a great aunt, who made saffron-y yellow dhal, spicy and hot with pepper, and the taste of the chunkayed brown garlic and whole geera, decorating the dhal with black teardrop flecks. Dhal was served in 2 ways – rice was mounded on half of a soup plate, and into the other half was ladled this fragrant, steaming liquid and you burned your fingers mixing the two – or pile up the rice and make an indentation in the middle and fill it to overflowing with the dhal, eating from a side and gradually mixing and eating your way to the middle, still burning the fingers of course. To this day, it’s not enough dhal for my father, or Lilandra, if it’s not spilling over the rice, pooling on the sides of the plate and threatening to drown out the white. Of course, Lilandra also required people to mix her rice and dhal when she was younger, before she could eat it, complaining if the rice and dhal were distinguishable as separate entities (in her defence she was very young – 3 or 4).
A dhal, according to wikipedia, is essentially made the same way, whatever the source split pulse – boil with turmeric and salt then add the tadka, tarka or chaunk (aromatics and spices fried in oil, with the whole mixture poured onto the completed dhal). We follow this rule, but without varying the tadka. We chunkay (act of frying aromatics and spices in oil – we also chunkay for our curry) with sliced garlic and whole geera (cumin). Mmmm. Chunkaying dhal. I used to think it was such a mysterious process – it must be – that those blackened bits speckling the yellow could release such fiery, smoky flavour that changed the whole nature of the boiled peas. Of course, it’s not just the garlic and geera bits that add to the dhal, but especially the flavour that the frying of these most important of ingredients has infused into the oil, which spreads throughout the pot. Deliciousness.
The chunkaying is something special for me also because we went through a period where Mom didn’t always chunkay the dhal – she boiled the dhal with geera and garlic etc, and didn’t want to add the extra oil. But we begged for the flavour, missing what we had become accustomed to, even though there were some who seemed to dislike charred teardrops in their dhal. Ptht to them. The mysteriousness of chunkaying was also increased by the apparent danger of the process. You had to light the entire burner and put a relativel small ladle (kalchul) full of oil directly over the fire, add the geera, then the garlic, watching them splutter and get browned. You then had to open the dhal pot as little as possible, shove in the kalchul and empty its contents while at the same time keeping the pot cover closed. And listen to the sizzle that told you magic was happening.
We also liquefy dhal. Not for us dhal with the shapes of the original peas still discernible. Oh no, we want liquid, as pure as we can get it. Traditionally, we use a dhal ghutney (a wooden swizzle stick) to mash the boiled dhal, and swizzle it away into a smooth fluid. Of course, that’s not always a perfect process, and in eating the dhal, your tongue would occasionally come across little morsels that added some texture – especially nice when you were just enjoying the dhal as soup, or with rice and no other vegetables or meat. But if you hanker for the perfect smooth liquid dhal, just do what I do – STICK BLENDER!!! Woohoo! Some kitchen tools are just worth their weight in gold. You can make cream of anything…but back to the dhal making.
It took me a long time before I felt I had the culinary mastery to undertake dhal. My room mate in UWI used to make the dhal and she always swore it was straightforward. But I took my time. And in fact it is simple in theory. So simple, I wondered whether I should blog about our yellow split pea dhal making. But you know what, there are people who searched for my cheese paste recipe…in fact there are now more daily searches for that than barfi! So, maybe there’s a yearning to see the dhal process, although not accompanied by any real information In any case, I have now recorded another key element of my menu and my memories.
Of course, since I made the dhal at night, the pictures are grainy and not of the best. I need an assistant. Or a job that gives me more time to cook!
Dhal, Trini-style: RECIPE
* 1/2 lb yellow split peas, soaked for a few hours and drained
* water to cover the peas by an inch or two
* 2 cloves of garlic smashed
* 1 whole congo/habanero pepper or a few small bird peppers
* salt and black pepper to taste
* pinch of turmeric (I don’t like to overdo it, the turmeric can overpower)
[You can add other spices, like ground dhania (coriander seed), ground geera, even green seasonings, or onions, if you fancy...I know some people make dhal with ahm chicken feet, or other meat parts...]
1. Boil the above until the peas are very soft (a pressure cooker is also handy) but there is still enough liquid in the pot for the peas to move freely. Keep an eye on the water content during cooking – burnt peas don’t make for great dhal.
2. Use a swizzle stick or ghutney, or a stick blender to liquefy the dhal.
* 2 tablespoons oil
* 1 teaspoon of whole geera (cumin seeds)
* 1 clove of garlic, sliced thinly
1. In a large kalchul, or small frying pan (or something like a Turkish coffee pot), heat the oil.
2. Add the geera and let get medium brown.
3. Add the sliced garlic and let brown to your liking.
4. Add oil with garlic and geera to dhal and cover the pot. After it has sizzled, stir the pot.
Serve as soup, or with rice, or roti and curry.
Of course, despite what I said at the beginning of this post, there is actually another type of dhal recognised in Trinidad at least. Not sure about Guyana. And that is peas dhal. Even more descriptive, ent? Actually we also call it green dhal. This is actually dhal made from pigeon peas (gungo peas). It’s not generally liquified as the yellow split pea dhal, but it is still mushed and swizzled. Pigeon peas are used also in a peas puri, as a variation of our dhalpuri, so I guess the Indian indentured labourers that came over here more than a 150 years ago used what they found readily available. But I have never had peas dhal anywhere outside the homes in my village, so I don’t know how popular or known it is. People may really just think it’s curried peas?
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