As a fan of Indian food, I was bowled over by the delectability of Northern Indian cooking. Fresh, flavorful produce, heady spices and sweet, locally grown rice all played starring roles in this region’s cuisine. Likewise chicken, lamb, and fish made frequent appearances in non-vegetarian dishes while legumes and nuts dominated the vegetarian fare. Almost every street cart and restaurant menu featured flat breads such as unleavened chapathi and leavened naan and filled pastries such as the crisp, conical samosa.
Foods that I consistently encountered at home turned out to be staples of Northern Indian diets, too. Pureed mint-coriander, chopped mango and piquant sweet pickle chutneys appeared at the start of every meal. Coupled with the chutneys were crunchy, wafer-like papadums, another regular from my U.S. Indian dining experiences. Even the national dish of Britain, chicken tikka masala, occasionally popped up on menus. Originating in the UK, this imported entree emphasized such traditional ingredients as garam masala, turmeric, yogurt, ginger, coriander, tomatoes and, of course, chicken.
Along with the usual items were the slightly unusual. One such curious dish was tandoori aloo. This vegetarian delight consisted of skinned and hollowed out potatoes stuffed with a combination of mashed potatoes, raisins, cashews, coriander and green chilies. Once filled, the potatoes were sealed, skewered and roasted in a tandoori oven. A bar snack that particularly piqued my interest was the puffed lotus seed or makhana. Puffed just like popcorn, these substantial, salty nubs proved the perfect partners for a cold Kingfisher lager or chilled glass of chardonnay from the India’s own Sula vineyards.
My favorite dish inevitably had “dal” somewhere in its name. From the famed Bukhara restaurant in New Delhi came the eponymous “Dal Bukhara.” Consisting of a rich blend of black lentils, tomatoes, ginger and garlic, this fragrant dish was simmered over a charcoal fire and then dressed with a dollop of cream and unsalted butter. At Niros in Jaipur Dal Peshawari contained whole yellow lentils, chopped onions, tomatoes and fresh coriander. Served with a side of fluffy basmati rice, Dal Peshawari made my night. In Agra at the Bellevue and its sister restaurant Esphahan I had the best dal dinner of the trip, Dal Tadka. Similar to the dal at Niros, Dal Tadka included yellow lentils, tomatoes, onions and fresh coriander. Chopped ginger, green and red chilies, cumin, tumeric, lemon juice and chili powder gave this dal a dash of excitement and complexity not found in the other dishes.
Back at home I struggle to find food as enticing as what I ate in Northern India. Here the dals seem watery, the naan leathery and the chutneys stale. With little hope of recapturing that culinary magic in an American-based restaurant, I’ll steer clear of those disappointing experiences for a little while. Instead I’ll try to master my all time favorite meal, dal tadka.
DAL TADKA – Courtesy of Narayan Rao, executive chef at The Oberoi Amarvilas in Agra, India
1/2 cup yellow lentils
1 1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/4 teaspoon black mustard seeds (my addition)
3 tablespoons onion, chopped
1 teaspoon ginger, chopped
1 teaspoon green chili pepper, chopped
1 plum tomato, chopped
1/8 to 1/2 teaspoon red chili powder
handful fresh coriander, chopped
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 whole red chili, optional
In a sauce pan bring the yellow lentils, turmeric, salt and 3 cups of water to a boil. Skim the foam off the top, cover the pan with a lid and simmer over medium-low for roughly 1 hour. When finished, the lentils will be soft and broken down. Remove the pan from the heat and set aside.
In a medium sauté pan heat the oil. Add the cumin seeds, black mustard seeds, chopped onion, ginger, and green chilies. Saute until the onion browns and then add the tomato and sauté it for 1 minute. Add the red chili powder and boiled lentils to the cooked onion-tomato (masala) mixture. Check and adjust the seasonings as needed. Finish the dish with chopped coriander, fresh lemon juice and optional whole red chili. Serve with a side of basmati rice.