I have lived in eight countries and 10 cities. I have never lived anywhere for longer than six years. But the one constant in my life, my anchor in a changing world, my defense against perpetual culture shock, is my pot of daal.
Daal — yellow, red, brown or black — is a staple across India. It is often described, inadequately, I think, as lentil soup. Except it’s so much more.
Despite the vast regional variations in cuisine, daal is a part of nearly every big meal eaten by Indians across the country. Every state has its own version, thinner and more broth-like in the south, thicker in the north. Each version has its own tadka or tempering, ranging from onions and cumin to coconut and mustard seeds. For a country where even nonvegetarians rarely eat meat every day, daal is a crucial, daily source of protein. “If you can cook daal, you can feed anyone from across India,” my father used to say.
I grew up an Indian child living in London, then Iran and the Middle East. My father was a doctor whose work with various government agencies took him on far-flung assignments, my mother a homemaker charged with making a home on a tiny budget wherever we moved. She did this by sticking doggedly to our South Indian culinary roots: a strictly vegetarian diet. At least three times a week, we ate some kind of daal: usually a thin and flavorful tomato and tamarind blend, or a thicker version mixed with vegetables and coconut. In small towns in Iran, my mother combed neighborhoods for an Indian provision store, or begged friends travelling from India to bring her her favorite lentils. Did we appreciate her hard work as children? No. Instead, ungrateful cretins that we were, we yearned for pasta, pizza or the scones and sandwiches from storybooks by our beloved English author, Enid Blyton. How things change.
I married a Bengali from the opposite end of India, a stranger to my culinary tradition, but no stranger to the love of daal. His version was thicker, chunkier and sweetish. My husband’s work in international banking keeps us ever on the move. We began our travels in Hong Kong, moving every two years to another unknown country. As newlyweds, struggling with running a house for the first time, we devised our own mutually acceptable version of daal: a thick brew of yellow lentils, with a tempering of onions, cumin, chilis, tomatoes and coriander. It was foolproof, requiring no measuring or reading of recipe books. You could freeze it, change it up with different temperings and ingredients, turn leftovers into rice dishes or use it as a sandwich filling. It was the one thing I could make in my sleep.
Ever since then, in the many moves that were to follow — some to countries where I could not speak the language, all to places where I did not know a soul — the first thing I did was to find an Indian supermarket and cook some daal.
When we arrived in Tokyo not speaking a word of Japanese, and had to mime our way through every daily interaction — from buying shampoo to putting out the garbage — I built a rampart against culture shock by making daal. Luckily, there was a local Indian grocer where no miming was needed.
When I was job-hunting in Hong Kong and was rejected time and time again because they wanted “native English speakers,” I went home, cried and made daal. In Thailand, three months pregnant, nauseated and missing home, I made daal. The rich smell of frying onions, the gentle bubbling, the slow stirring, soothes me like some form of culinary yoga.
In each country, I made different local variations. Currently living between Istanbul and India, I mix in the fresh Turkish ispanak (spinach) and the amazing variety of patlicans (aubergines). In Bangkok, I used the gorgeous local mangoes to make a mensinkai, a sweet-sour mango and daal concoction from my parents’ home state, Karnataka. In London, to combat the dreary weather, I returned to the fiery, warming, pepper and lemon rasams of my childhood, the best defense against a runny nose. In Hong Kong, I used Chinese ginger to spike up my daal.
A good daal requires tools. As Indians everywhere know, you can’t make one without a pressure cooker. Not for us the Western method of simmering lentils for hours on a stove, then serving them chewy and hard to the teeth. There’s no al dente for lentils; they must be soft and creamy. I have carted my battered old pressure cooker across the world, along with its gaskets, whistles and separators: a set of three shallow vessels that fit neatly inside and help me cook rice, daal and veggies all in one go. And among the early gifts I got from my mother was a tempering spoon, a large ladle used to simmer the curry leaves, mustard seeds and chilies that go on top of my daal.
When I had children, the first thing I fed them as babies was mashed up daal and rice, as millions of Indians do. As they grew up, they whined for pasta or burgers, just as I used to. “When in Rome, do what the Romans do,” said one of my expat friends, wondering why I didn’t just resort to bottled spaghetti sauce or frozen pizza. And sometimes, at the end of a long day, I did.
But more often than not, I thought back to my own nomadic childhood, and their even more nomadic one. They would always be the new kids in the class. They would often be the only Indians in class. We needed a constant, something that reminded them of where they came from and where they were going. In our family, that was food, and thus daal.
Recently, we went on a monthlong road trip across America, where my children got their fill of junk food: traveling the interstate on a diet of McDonald’s, Domino’s, Jack in the Box and Wendy’s. “Finally!” said my son. “I can eat all the pizza I want.”
But they soon grew weary of the endless cheese on everything, the over-large portions, and to an Indian palate, a distressing lack of spice. Ten days into the journey, driving across the lonely roads of Arizona on our way to the Grand Canyon, I heard a small voice in the back. “I wish we could have daal for lunch,” said my 15-year-old daughter. This was the first time she had expressed any desire for it. Later, in Las Vegas, both children stared longingly at a package of ready-cooked, imported daal in the gift shop. But their cravings wouldn’t be fulfilled for another 10 days, till we returned home to Bangalore.
For our first meal together since returning from America, we sat around the table, not saying a word, quietly slurping down that good old yellow daal, brimming with caramelized onions, chilies, ghee and a punch of garlic. Our tongues sang.
“It’s so good to eat something that is warm and spicy,” my daughter said. My son said nothing — he was too busy eating as fast as he could. What was home to me — in a constantly shifting, changing, scary world — was now home to them, too.
Kavitha Rao is a journalist, author and trainer based between Bangalore, India, and Istanbul.