My love affair with everything Indian started more than four decades ago. At seventeen, straight from the confines of a Wiltshire market town, I moved to London, to the safety of a Knightsbridge based YWCA hostel. Here, girls under the age of 21 could live in shared rooms for just under five pounds a week, which at the time was just under half of my weekly wage packet.
I shared a room on the top floor of this Victorian building with two other girls, one of whom was an Indian girl whose parents ran a business in Uganda. I can no longer remember her name, but I can see her face quite clearly as well as that of her older sister. They were always laughing and gently poking fun at my stiff English ways. I was taken under their wing and introduced to their version of London life. We watched long, joyous Bollywood movies at the Commonwealth Centre, gyrating home in unison, practising our Bollywood moves, collapsed with laughter as they tried to drape my 6ft frame into one of their brightly coloured saris and best of all shared the aromatic curries they made in the hostel’s basement kitchen.
I was somewhat familiar with Indian cuisine as flock wallpapered curry houses had already infiltrated into Salisbury, but they were places to go after the pub closed to eat mountains of acrid chicken biryani to absorb the alcohol. My friend’s dishes were of a different variety. Two or three different vegetables curries were served, covered in delicately spiced and aromatic sauces which I had to learn to scoop up with a pile of freshly made chapattis. The exotic smells must have made their way up the hostel stairs, as we were often joined by our other housemates sniffing their way down to see what was being eaten and what could be shared.
It took another three decades before I actually made it to India. A headhunting assignment took me to both Delhi and Mumbai. The British Airway’s flight flew overnight and tipped me out onto the tarmac at Indira Ghandi airport in the early morning. I was met by the smells and chaos I up to then had only associated with Africa. The drive to my hotel was at once terrifying and fascinating. There seemed to be few rules, every manoeuvre to overtake, became one of Russian roulette. Would we make it in time or not? Even in the more structured, leafy diplomatic area, designed by Lutyens, it wasn’t just vehicles on the roads, but cows, chickens, bicycles, all weaving in and out in a slow dance to a cacophony of car horns. It was a relief to enter the hotel’s tranquil atmosphere of highly polished floors, high ceiling and the all-pervasive scent of lilies coming from the massive floral displays. I had just time to change and shower before starting on the long list of candidates to interview. English headhunters interviewing for the Indian market were unusual enough, and female ones even more so. Everyone was more than happy to meet an English lady and stay longer than my schedule allowed. By the end of the day, I was too exhausted to consider eating at one of the hotel’s luxurious restaurants. Room service, beautifully laid out on a large tray and decorated with a spray of orchids, was brought to me each night by a tall Sikh wearing impeccable gloves and with impeccable manners to match. I became a Memsahib for three nights running. It was as much a relaxant to hear his resounding knock on the door and ‘room service, Memsahib’ as it was to take the first sip of wine after a long day. The first night I ordered black bean dhal with a stack of warm roti to scoop it up, and the second night and the third. I was hooked. There was something so warm and comforting about its spicy simplicity that I’ve been searching ever since for a dhal to equal. It has only taken me another decade and a half to stop searching and try and replicate that wonderful dish for myself. I’m nearly there.
Black bean dhal
Preparation time -1hr, not counting soaking the lentils. Feeds eight as a side.
250g black urid beans (also called urid dal, urad dal, black lentils or black gram beans)
50g butter or ghee
2 large white onions, halved and thinly sliced
3 garlic cloves, crushed
2cm piece of ginger root, peeled and finely chopped
2 tsp ground cumin
2 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp ground turmeric
1 tsp smoked paprika
1/2tsp chilli powder
bunch of coriander, stalks finely chopped, leaves reserved to serve
400g passata or stewed tomatoes (I used my own home made sauce)
1 fat red chilli, pierced a few times with tip of sharp knife
salt to taste
50ml double cream
Soak the beans in cold water for 4 hrs (or overnight, if easier). Wash the lentils thoroughly, replacing the water two or three times. Place them in a pan with plenty of water and bring to boil over a high heat. Reduce the heat and simmer for 30-45 minutes until tender. Drain.
Melt the butter or ghee in a large pan, then add the onions, garlic and ginger, and cook slowly for 20 – 30 mins until the onions have softened and are starting to caramelise. Stir in the spices, coriander stalks and 100ml water. Add the tomatoes and whole red chilli. Then add the cooked beans. Simmer for another 45 mins. Once cooked, the dhal should be very thick. Before serving, stir in the cream, then check the seasoning – this is where I add salt to taste.
I like to make dhal the day before I want to serve it as I think like many curried dishes, the flavour improves with ‘resting’. Dhal also freezes very well, if heated thoroughly before eating.
I consider lentils a starch, so I find it too heavy to serve as a filling for baked potatoes which I often see suggested. I tend to serve it as a side dish to accompany roast game or spicy sausages in addition to a side of brassica, Brussel sprouts or a chunk of steamed savoy cabbage.