The Humble Dal
Dal has been a staple food for centuries. Dal is a soup-like preparation made from different pulses. It is one of the simplest, most humble, and most comforting foods. Each state in India has its favorite selection of Dals and method of preparation. Toor, masoor, chana, urad, and moong dal are the most commonly used Dals in India. Each region of India, right from north to south and east to west has its distinct tempering to the dals, giving an aroma and fragrance that is incomparable.
Ancient History of Dal
Dal gets its name from Sanskrit verbal root dal- “to split”. The pulses have always been an integral part of Indian cuisine. Dal preparation differed from region to region right from the Vedic civilization. In the Vedic Civilization in around 1200 B.C, pules have known to be consumed, widely. The Yajur and Rig Veda mention the use of Masura (masoor), Masa (kidney beans), Arhar (Tuvar), Mugda (Mung), gram, and pea. In the Vedic period, Masa (Urad Dal) was commonly used as food as well as in rituals. Masa or kidney beans were stewed and mixed with a little jaggery and oil to make the dish Kulmasha. This was the poor man’s food during the Vedic times and the rich ate only when there was scarcity.
Pulses were first cooked as a soup during the sutra period, (800 B.C. TO 300 B.C) we find the dish ‘supa’ or soup. This is believed to be the first preparation of Dal the way it is prepared today. This preparation is mentioned in Panini’s Astadhyayi. Out of the pulses from the Vedic period Masa (Urad dal), Mudga (Mung), and Kulattha (Horse gram) continued to come into use. During the Buddhist and Jaina Era as well Dal Preparation was common, it was known as Yusa.
Invented by Bheema Loved by the Mughals
According to folk narratives of the Mahabharata, It is during Agyata Vaas, Pandavas were hiding at king Virat’s Kingdome. There Pandavas took menial jobs to serve the king and protect their identities. Bhīma became Vallabh, a cook. He would cook for the king. One day Bhīma mixed five of the dals that were available and slow-cooked it, this became the first ‘Pancharatna dal’ otherwise known as ‘Panchamel dal’.
In the Mughal period, we see the Panchmel dal, as one of Jodha Bai’s favorite dishes. The Panchamel dal is a flavored mix of Moong Dal, Chana Dal, Tur Dal, Masoor Dal, and Urad Dal. It’s believed that Jodha Bai introduced this dal to the kitchen of Akbar. Moradabadi dal is another creation of the succulent dal of the Mughal period, this dal is made of Moong dal, This delicacy came into being when Prince Murad Baksh( the third son of Shah Jahan) established the megacity of Moradabad in 1625.
Even in Maurya and Sunga (300 B.C. to 75 AD.) period Soup prepared from it is expressly mentioned in the texts of those times. In the Epic age use of Chanaka or Chana Dal had come into use.
The Gupta period, (300 A.D. to 750 A.D) saw a rise in preference for the green Mudga or Mung beans and a decline in the use of Masa (urad dal) on medical grounds, as people felt it was difficult to digest. However, Kulatha was widely used. This period also saw the use of Rajamasa (Rajma or Kidney beans), Masura (Masoor Dal), and gram during Sraddha rituals, according to the Puranas.
In Manasollasa we find Mentions of Spiced Mung Dal preparation, it is said that A soup prepared with Mudga(Mung), asafetida, pieces of ginger, pieces of lotus stalks fried in oil or the seeds of Priyala is also mentioned.
Superstitions around Dal
Dal later grew much more popular with the development of culinary art. Dal also has an emotional connect with people, mere cooking of dal has great significance in cultures in India. For instance, in Gujarati cuisine, a traditional meal is incomplete with Gujarati dal, bhaat (rice), roti and shak (subzi). The khatti-meethi or sweet and tangy dal is of great importance to them. It is said that ‘Jeni dal bagdi teno divas bagadyo’ (the day is ruined for one whose dal is ruined). Such emphasis is given to cooking a perfect dal. It is the aroma of the dal being cooked that defines the taste and perfection of the dal.
The are many dishes that have evolved from the traditional dal, which have an interesting story of origin as well. Some of the extensions have evolved by accident or experimentation. The two most famous ones are sambar and Dal Makhani.
During the horrors of Indian independence Jaggi along with Kundan Lal Gujral, migrated to Delhi. They then set up the famous Moti Mahal restaurant in Daryaganj. The place where butter chicken was born. Once Jaggi decided to use the tomato-based butter chicken gravy loaded with butter and cream for the black Punjabi dal they were serving. The dal would not taste right. They then slow-cooked it for hours over a slow flame, the combination proved to be a masterstroke, and the fabled Dal makhani was born.
This is a hot, tangy, and spicy extension of dal mixed with vegetables is appetizing in aroma and taste. Sambar originated during the Maratha period, in the 17th century. This dish was a last-moment ‘everything into pan’ move. As per popular reads, this dish originated in the kitchen of Thanjavur Maratha Ruler Shahaji, he had a special liking for a dish called ‘Amti’. One day great Maratha Ruler Shivaji Maharaja’s son Sambhaji was visit
ing his cousin Shahaji. Shahaji wanted to serve Amti to his cousin, however, the key ingredient ‘kokum’ ran out of supply, Shahaji himself experimented with the dish with Toor dal, vegetables, spices, and tamarind pulp and served his cousin, Sambhaji. The other narrative says that Sambhaji himself cooked dal with Tamarind Pulp and whatever he had found in the kitchen when his chef was away. Sambhaji loved this dal so much that he gave his name to this dish, and this dal became Sambar.