Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Dhal Foundation - Part 2

Continued from here.

Although Part 1 had a different title, you know the gist.

So my first attempt at dhal was about to take place. I pulled out the handwritten recipe, I pulled out all the ingredients, almost. I thought that the preparations were done but was missing two things; lemon juice and saffron. As a novice I figured that only two things wouldn't be that important, there were about ninety four other ingredients and that's not even if I count the lentils individually.

As a random aside has anyone else ever wondered how many grains of rice there would be in an average portion? Or is it just me that thinks about these sort of things?

Indyana, if you happen to read this I'll type up the recipe and email it to you as soon as I get the chance, I'm reluctant to post it here as it's a family secret passed down from one generation to me, and my brother.

There I was though. Some frying was involved, some boiling, mustard seeds, onions and lots of spices that I didn't know the name of if it wasn't for the fact that my Mum had bought them all and given little labelled jars when I moved in. Sometimes these matriarchs have uses.

I followed the instructions devoutly. Where I had written "boil" I boiled, where I had written "this much" I used exactly this much, not a bit less or a tad more. Cleverly I had taken my Dad's instructions on quantities and translated them into something that could be understood by me. So, when indeed he had told me to use "this much" I had converted it into teaspoons or tablespoons worth and written that down. Of course, he was cooking for about ten people at the time but that was fine, I knew that dhal keeps and I'd eat about two white people's portion in a sitting, so I figured that a supply of five day's worth was reasonable.

My logic was sound, if I could master the recipe for ten people then, at some point in the future, I'd try to adapt it for less people, but it wasn't important. Taste was the crucial thing. Parippu cooks quickly, far more quickly than it takes to chop stuff up and fry other stuff. I'm definitely no Pradeep Jeganathan. How fellows like that manage to cook up all these marvellous meals, get the food to pose seductively and then take the perfect photograph I'll never know.

I had bits of onion and lentils, stray chunks of maldive fish and odd bits of Vater drumsticks all over the place. The drumstick thing is true and odd. When I moved in I realised that the wine rack in the kitchen is a perfect place to store new sticks, so much more practical than sticking bottles of wine in there.

After about half an hour I had produced what looked remarkably like my Dad's dhal. There unfortunately the similarity ended. Frankly it tasted like something from the extra mild section of the Tesco curry for kids meals.

I ate it and digested things, literally and metaphorically.

Then I tried again the next day. I had gone to Tesco at lunch and bought lemons and saffron. Fuck me, have you seen this saffron stuff. It cost me about £3 for a tiny box that weighed about half as much as one of those helium balloons and it didn't make my voice go all funny either. But it was part of the recipe and I knew it was important. even though I couldn't recollect my Dad using it by sight.

That night I followed the instructions again, with the addition of lemon juice and saffron. I also bunged in a little bit of chicken stock, my own addition but something that has become a core ingredient of all my dishes, except the chicken ones. This time the dhal tasted entirely of saffron.

But I'd started to enjoy the adventure. I was getting a handle on what things tasted like what, which spices did which things and added specific flavours and aromas to a dish.

I ate it and digested things. Again.

Day three. I did it again and I wasn't even remotely sick of dhal. It's good being a Sri Lankan. This time I used even less saffron and a bit less lemon. I had got the lemon balance correct but that overpowering saffron taste was still there.

I ate it and digested things.

Day four. I knew that I shouldn't fry the onions and stuff for too long. I had done that the previous day and they were just a bit too black, the taste was slightly too strong. I knew that the saffron was still an issue but didn;t know the solution, I knew that chicken stock was a useful ingredient, just not to be used in the presence of vegetarians, unless I just kept quiet.

Finally I'd come up with a dish I was almost completely happy with, there was just the saffron thing outstanding. I'd used hardly any of the little red wrinkly stuff but it still overpowered the parippu. Unlike so many of the Australians in the world cup final I was stumped. So close yet so far.

I ate know the rest.

The next morning I went into work and I knew what I had to do. I rang Dad.

"Dad, you know your dhal"

"My what?" he said.

"Your dhal" I said.

"My dhal?" he asked, as if I had presented him with Einstein's theory of relativity and asked him to explain it.

"Yes, your dhal"

"Ah, my dhal, what about it?" he asked.

"Well I've been making it for the last few days."

"You've been what?" he asked. You know what these Dads are like.

"I've been trying to make it for the last few days" I explained.

"Trying to make what?" he asked, as I'd confused him.

"Your dhal"

"I'm what?" he said.

"Not you, your dhal, your parippu" I elaborated.

"Ah what about it?"

"Well how much saffron do you put into it? I wrote down half a teaspoon but it just seems way too much" I told him.

"Saffron?" he said in a puzzled tone.

"Yes, you said half a teaspoon of saffron"

"No, you don't put saffron in it, are you mad?" he asked indignantly and Sri Lankanly.

"But you said"

I then told him how I had written it down, bought some at great expense and spent several days making dhal and getting obssessed by saffron.

"No, not saffron, I meant turmeric, that's what we call it in Sri Lanka" he said.

My next words were along the lines of "oh thanks Dad, bye", but my thoughts were unprintable, or unbloggable at least, full of swearing towards my Father, full of bad and nasty thoughts that just shouldn't be shared. So I won't share them.

The conclusion is good. I can now make a dhal, with a half teaspoon of turmeric, that tastes like pure delight. It's been tried on a few people and it's a joyous success. I can still only make the correct amount for about ten people but that's ok.

I told Lady Luck the whole story afterwards and she seemed to have a vague explanation of why saffron and turmeric could be called by the same name when transalating from Sinhala to English. I didn't fully understand but it all made sense to her.

I'm happy. There are more recipes to learn and I'm hoping they need saffron as I've got a lot of it in the cupboard.

The most important thing I've learned is that when my Dad says saffron, he means turmeric.


N said...

I was laughing from the moment you said you bought saffron that cost s pounds for such a small amount :)

Honestly I've always thought turmeric was saffron just a cheap version...learn something new every day!

yellow suddas said...

Do you think you can put up the parippu recipe?

I have a Sri Lankan recipe book with some recipes requiring saffron, but is saffron even widely used in Sri Lankan recipes??? Makes me wonder now....
Saffron = Tumeric...

Glad your parippu worked out!

Angel said...

I kept wondering why saffron (=turmeric) was so expensive in UK... untill I got to the bottoem of the post, that is. Never had to use the bona fide saffron... maybe I should move on to more exotic dishes!

Indyana said...

Thank you very much!

L said...

Must admit due to my own experiences, I figured it out when you said saffron costs 3pounds.

Turmeric (root of a plant) as far as I know gives almost no flavour. It simply gives the yellow colouring to the food.

Saffron (yellow stamens of a flower) is a huge thing with Persians and also Indians. Persians in particular put saffron in so many things. Even their tea. It is used in small quantities, and their food isn't as spicy and hot like ours, so just one or two strands in rice for instance, go a long way.

One of my friends offered to give me some high quality saffron and considering that it was as expensive or more expensive than gold I realised it would be unfair to accept the gift and had to explain that Sri Lankans don't use saffron in their cooking and if I wanted to use it for some one off Indian or middle eastern dish, I could buy a couple of strands when the need arose.

L said...

Found out that about three or four generations back, the members of my family used the actual turmeric root in their cooking. I have only seen the powder used.

Gowri said...

Saffron is used more in Indian Cooking, Its used for Briyanis and this sweet dish (kulfi). Its also believed in India that When pregnant women consume saffron everyday in little quantity with milk that they will have Fair babies. So people pay big bucks for that. kulfi is quite easy to make if u want can send the recipe across.....

Theena said...

"Ah, my dhal, what about it?" he asked.

"Well I've been making it for the last few days."

"You've been what?" he asked. You know what these Dads are like.

"I've been trying to make it for the last few days" I explained.

"Trying to make what?" he asked, as I'd confused him.

"Your dhal"

"I'm what?" he said.

"Not you, your dhal, your parippu" I elaborated."

I lolled reading that.

R, could you share the recipe with moi? I haven't eaten proper dhal in ages.


Indyana said...

Well, you could at least publish the recipe here!