What's the biggest joy of cooking for you? For me, it's about feeding people. The moment when I serve the food I prepared and someone takes a bite and smiles, is what matters the most to me. Don't get me wrong. I love eating my food too, and yes it matters a lot to me! But feeding someone else definitely wins over. As Guy Fieri aptly says, "Cooking is all about people. Food is maybe the only universal thing that really has the power to bring everyone together. No matter what culture, everywhere around the world, people eat together."
Although there continues to be enough politics around food and stigma and disagreement around people of different classes and castes eating together, one place you will find this utterly true is a langar, free community kitchen, a hallmark of the Sikh community all over the world. Sitting in pangats (lines), everyone eats together in a langar, a system of community meals where food is about sharing joys and sorrows and healing in turbulent times, irrespective of people's backgrounds, histories and classes. Gurcharan Singh Chani, a culture expert, says in this article on The Hindu, he has seen the tradition of a langar being put to great use during Partition (of India) when refugee camps would organize them to feed the displaced masses. Thousands of people who were suffering the loss of their homes and loved ones, survived on these langars initially; later, many of them opened cheap dhabas as cooking and feeding was a proven way to sustain.
Amidst everything delicious that's served in a langar, the mah-chole dal, a luscious dal made of urad and chana dal, and kadha prasad (aate ka halwa - wheat flour halwa) have remained my favourites. By now, you'd know half of my epicurean self is Punjabi. So this half-Punjabi has always adored black dals in all forms, especially the ones prepared in a langar.
There's something about kaali dals (black dals) and Punjabis, skin-on urad being at the helm of Punjab's dal repertoire. Thick in consistency, creamy in texture and packed with a whole lot of flavour, urad is made into many types of dals. The popularity of such thicker dals makes perfect sense in the Punjabi cuisine because thicker dal preparations go well with rotis, flatbreads staple in the Punjabi diet. Scooping spoonfuls of a dal with cones made of bits of roti is an experience in itself. A side of plain raw veggie salad is enough with this combination to leave you satisfied in the heart and full in the belly!
To understand the other reason for dals like urad being popular in the Punjabi cuisine, we must look at the history of tandoors, clay ovens used in India and Pakistan, which were communal stoves in olden times. People would gather around the common tandoor of the neighbourhood, make their stack of rotis and share a laughter or tear in between. Once done, the remnant fire of the tandoor was used to cook dals like urad which take a long time to cook. Slowly cooking on the tandoor, sometimes overnight, the dal would only turn tastier.
Growing up, thicker dals were limited on my plate. People from the eastern states of Odisha West Bengal and the north-east like Assam are rice eaters, and rice is usually served with thinner dals and many sides of veggies and meat. Of course there was rajma-chawal, a diversion from the usual combination of thinner dals and rice, but other thicker dal preparations were rare for us.
Everything good comes with time, at least it has for me! I grew up and met Auntie A, a name you most likely have heard many times on this blog, and she taught me to cook many-many Punjabi dishes the way they're made in a Punjabi household. Recipes for all thick black dals made the Punjabi way are my legacy from her.
Some of the recipes that I learned from her and have jotted down so far, including this Mah-Chole Dal:
Saag Chole (Chickpeas cooked with greens)
Punjabi Chole (Chickpeas cooked in Punjabi style)
Vegetable Masala Khichdi (Rice and Moong Dal cooked with vegetables and seasoned with spices)
Punjabi Bharwa Karele (Stuffed bitter gourds in a Punjabi style)
Punjabi Style Karele ki Sabzi (Stir-fried bitter gourds in a Punjabi style)
Sardiyon Wali Gajar Matar (Winter peas and carrots)
Sookhi Arbi (Taro root stir fry)
Rajma Chawal (Red Kidney Beans with rice)
Methi Paratha (Fengreek leaves flatbreads)
Bugha Chawal (Sindhi Style Rice with caramelized onions and whole spices)
During one of my learning sessions in the kitchen, I asked Auntie how one could replicate the flavours of a langar wali dal (dal cooked in a langar) at home. She told me one could only emulate it with love, and a whole lot of love. Because there are no recipes to follow in a langar kitchen. A broad guideline is followed around different dishes and everyone pours their warmth and affection into the food that's cooked. In earlier times, people used to bring in the tenth portion (daswandh guru da meaning the tenth portion is of the guru) of their homegrown produce and donate at gurudwaras to be cooked in the community kitchens. With all that came in, a meal was prepared for everyone, and everyone ate it together.
Best enjoyed with hot rotis and some simple veggie sides or just pickled onions and cucumbers or even steamed rice! It's a great dal for cooler months when the warming properties of whole dals like urad have a calming effect on our appetites.
So, this recipe is a rough guideline on how a mah-chole dal is made in a langar and it's also how Auntie A made it at home. No fine chopping of onions or pureeing of tomatoes. Absolutely rough pounding of ginger, garlic and green chilies. A good dose of coriander powder, some turmeric and red chili powders, and that's all that goes into it.
You must trust your instincts and pour all your love while making it. That's the secret of this dal. I really mean it!
For boiling the lentils: 3/4 cup whole black Urad dal, 1/4 cup Chana dal (Bengal Gram), 3 cups of water, 1/4 tsp turmeric, 1/4 tsp red chilli powder, 1/4 tsp ginger and garlic pounded, 1 bay leaf (optional), 1/2 tsp salt
1 tbsp oil + 1 tsp ghee ( or 2 tbsp oil)
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 medium onion, roughly chopped
1 medium tomato, roughly chopped
1/2 inch ginger
3-4 cloves of garlic
1 green chili
1/4 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp red chili powder
1 tsp heaped coriander powder
1 tsp salt, or to taste
1 to 2 tbsp cilantro chopped
In a pressure cooker, add the ingredients mentioned under "for boiling the lentils" and cook on high heat for 1 whistle and on medium to low flame for 4-5 whistles. Every pressure cooker is different - so your whistles maybe different than mine. The rough idea is to cook it for about 20 to 25 minutes. Take the pressure cooker off of heat and keep aside. Note: You can also boil the lentils in a heavy bottom vessel like a Dutch oven. It will take about 45-50 minutes to let the lentils cook completely on medium-low heat.
In a pestle mortar, add the ginger, garlic and green chilli and pound to make a coarse paste.
Place a large pan or wok on the heat, and add oil (and ghee if using). Once hot, add cumin seeds and let them crackle. To this, add the pounded paste and sauté until mildly fragrant, taking care not to burn them.
Add onions and mix to combine. Once the onions turn pink, add turmeric, red chilli and coriander and stir well. Let the spices cook and onions start getting brown. It should take about 15-20 minutes. Add splashes of water if anything sticks to the pan or wok.
Add tomatoes and stir to combine. Sauté, cover and cook until you see the mixture to be well assembled and the oil oozing from the sides. It should take about 8-10 minutes.
Open the pressure cooker, and slightly mash some of the lentils with the back of the ladle. This helps in giving a thicker consistency to the dal. Stir and add the lentils in the pan or wok and let it simmer for 7-10 minutes. Add some chopped cilantro while it's simmering. Note: If there's extra water, you can let the dal simmer a bit longer. If there's less water, add desired amount of warm water and let the dal simmer.
Mix well, adjust salt if needed and then turn off heat once you're happy with the consistency. Add the remaining chopped cilantro on top before serving.
If you make it, tag me on Instagram and share your pictures! I'd love to hear from you!