Kali Dahl

12 Oct 2006

Excerpt from a novel I abandoned in 1996 or so ...

Dahl is by no means strictly Indian; most Americans eat lentils. Lentil soup, American style, is practically dahl. But it's also much more ... Upon reflection, one notes that dahl carries an importance beyond its fundamental nourishment; it's more of a ritual -- part of every south Asian's sense of identity and humanity, transcending caste.

Clive's favorite feature in the world was food. He'd savor each bite of every meal, and he'd even begun to publish restaurant reviews here and there -- mostly praise, though, which proved problematic. He'd oncestudied with an instructor who quipped of literary critics: "None ever found notoriety by praising another's work.If you want success, you've got to discover faults." Unable to forget this, Clive feared his own obscurity. And why shouldn't he have feared this?After all, meals and literature shared so many common properties: the distinctive beginning, middle, and end. The climax and denouement. Main characters, supporting roles.Indian food had become a favorite subject: "The alliteration in garam masala ... " he wrote, " ... the cumin, coriander, cinnamon, cardamom, clove, cyanne."

Another of his former grad school professors had become famous because of a poem describing a tense dinner with a hostile general -- a dangerous man from some highly unstable central American country. Food intertwined with politics, he thought. Clive would have a similar opportunity in Sri Lanka-- however, with perhaps less political shock attached.The Brigadier General with whom Clive dined smiled gently and comfortably, wearing a sarong, in the warm glow of his living room. His stately wife entered the room carrying two plates. He mixed his rice and yellow dahl with the thumb and fingers of his right hand, as if demonstrating a technique to Clive. "We eat this way," he said, "because it is said that there is greater sensuality with this method.Also, it is easier to mix than with utensils. When you eat with your fingers, there is actually a heightened sense of taste."

The aging man later produced two heavy plastic binders filled with the newspaper clippings and memorabilia of his career, each page securely laminated. "Ants," he said, "They eat everything. You have to be very careful."Clive and the general, purposely left alone by the women for the evening, discussed politics, philosophy, technology, world-population, golf, rugby, cricket, and yes, even dahl. ...

I'm glad I abandoned that novel, as I don't think I could have ever taken my main character seriously enough to have finished it. Who names someone Clive anyway? Is that not the most uncreative character name ever? The only Clive I've ever heard of is the well known horror author, Clive Barker, and I can't imagine I ever knew enough about that guy to name a character after him. I trudged into that project a good 100 pages or so before realizing I had no real story to tell -- just quirky observations gathered via my trip to India in 1994. Clive was me, of course, disguised a bit. (Is all fiction really masked versions of real life?) I should have kept it first-person and attempted a basic travel narrative, though I'd have had to give up writing the strange dream sequences involving Clive's rather gonzo pursuit of enlightenment via extremely spicy cauilflower.

Don't worry, I'm not going to break out that old thing, though it does contain about four or five paragraphs that I've always considered especially good. It's tough to abandon those, though Samuel Johnson reportedly advised, " Read over your compositions, and when you meet a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out." Food for thought ... Anyway,I was actually just thinking about dahl, you see (often spelled simply dal ). It's fall, after all, right? It's getting cold and you're going to need to keep warm.Now, I've written previously about how to pick up women using Indian food. But today,as a public service, I'm going to do something really out of character and share a recipe.This may be the only time I'll ever do this, as I'm not known for my culinary abilities. If by some miracle you have the following items lying about, this will be an extremely easy recipe to follow:

1 pressure cooker

1 hand blender

1+ cup chana dahl (that means, for my purposes, a heaping cup)

1 cup masoor dahl

3 cloves of garlic

3/4 of a smallish onion, chopped

2 tablespoons oil

1 teaspoon mustard seeds (optional -- less than 1 tsp., actually)

1+ teaspoon curry powder(hot or sweet)

7 cups water

2 tablespoons oil (again)

1+ teaspoon garam masala

1 teaspoon curry (again, hot or sweet)

few shakes ground hot pepper(optional)

several shakes ground cinnamon

ground ginger

tiny pinch of cardamom, ground (optional)

1/4 tsp. tumeric (optional)


3 tablespoons tomato pastef

few slices oflemon (optional)

bit of cilantro (optional)

Sourcing the above: All are available at any Indian food supply store. Chana dahl may confuse you somewhat, as chana is chick peas. But dried, they're quite a bit smaller than you might expect if you make hummus a lot using the canned variety. They're small dried yellow lentils -- not the bloated main ingredient featured in my previous post. They cost about $3 for a small bag -- enough to make about 6 or 7 pots of this soup. If, according to my most knowledgeable wife, you want a higher protein content, you might consider replacing some or all of the chana dahl with Toor dahl, a slightly oilier and duller-yellow lentil. All of these lentils, including the Masoor dahl, run roughly the same price. Masoor is tiny, rather bright orange lentils. The rest is common enough, I suppose. Curry is available everywhere, though a good curry from an Indian supply store is going to be better than whatever your local grocery store has. Garam masala, as described in my novel excerpt, is a curry-like spice blend of mostly things that begin with the letter C.

For anyone without the above equipment and ingredients, making this soup may represent quite an expensive proposition in terms of both time and money.In addition, you may dislike the result, which may instill a certain feeling of regret and/or resentment directed toward me and/or your decision to pursue this project -- which, lets face it, is really a feeling of resentment directed at yourself for believing the words of some stranger off the internet. But, for those of you who have acquired a taste for authentic Indian food, I can state with confidence that the effect on most people upon sampling this ambrosia is profound. And, once you have the pressure cooker and spices, the cost to make each subsequent pot of this unbelievably delicious soup is roughly a dollar. (So, when Sally Struthers says you can feed a kid for 37 cents/day, she's not kidding.) And so, without further adieu, here is how to make Patrick's Kali Dahl:

To begin, you need to measure out the lentils. You need 1 cup of the Masoor dahl and 1 heaping cup of the Chana dahl. Don't make the mistake of simply pouring this all into a strainer and rinsing it. You need to pour it out on a plate or something first. Spend a minute picking through it. You'll find all sorts of crap in there that you don't want to eat -- e.g., small twigs and so forth. Once you're happy that it's clean, put the lentils in something and rinse them off for a few minutes. I'm not sure why I do this; it just seems right to me, intuitively.

Okay, on to the the fun part. Chop the hell out of the three cloves of garlic. Slice up the onion as well. You don't have to dice it -- just chop it as you would for a salad or something. It's all getting blended at the end, anyway. I'm not entirely sure why I've designated "3/4 of a smallish onion" as the correct portion; I suppose you could just as easily use one small onion, or half a regular-sized one. It's just that vegetables vary in size so dramatically. I once saw a potato that a guy brought back from Idaho. I swear to God, the thing was like a regulation football. Anyway, toss the garlic and chopped onion into the bottom of your pressure cooker. Pour in about a tablespoon of oil -- olive oil's always good, but whatever you like. Add in a teaspoon or so of a good curry powder and the mustard seeds (optional). Fire it up to a medium heat and sautee the above for a while. You don't need to scorch these things or even brown them, really. Just get 'em cooking a bit. Your entire house will now be filled with that distinctive curry smell. Since we eat a lot of Indian food, this smell is considered appetizing in our home. However, I realize that many people in the world (esp. in the American Midwest) consider ketchup an ethnic food. (I think that was a Jeff Foxworthy quip, actually.) As such, your reaction to the aroma may vary.

Okay, now add exactly 7 cups of water. I've made this soup so often and screwed around with that measurement so many times, you wouldn't believe it. So, trust me -- use exactly 7 cups of water. Then add in the lentils (the dahl), the tomato paste, another tablespoon or so of oil, your garam masala (again, a healthy teaspoon or so -- enough to basically coat the top of the water), your curry powder (again, and a similar amount to the garam masala), your hot spices (optional), a few shakes of ground ginger, a decent amount of cinnamon (perhaps even upwards of a teaspoon), just a tiny, tiny pinch of cardamom (again, optional, and not worth buying just for this recipe. Add it only if you already have some, just for that certain je ne sais quoi.) Christ, I'm turning into Emeril, aren't I? Anyway, also add a bit of tumeric (maybe a quarter teaspoon or so, just to enjoy the spice's color and medicinal properties well known in the Ayurvedic tradition).

Now, pause for a moment to rethink evrything and realize that you've forgotten something ... Ahhh, yes, the salt. Add some salt. Then, give it all a good stir and seal the pressure coooker. Crank your stove up to high to achieve high pressure. (Hopefully, you'll have a pressure coooker similar to the one I have, which has a valve to indicate when high pressure is reached.) When you hit high pressure, turn the heat down to low (which should be enough to maintain high pressure) and set a timer for 12 minutes. Go play the piano or something while you wait; that's what I normally do. I've been working on a great piece called Odeon by Ernesto Nazareth, a long-dead Brazilian composer (1863-1934) whose work haunts many pianists today. You have to love those South American rhythms -- the choro, the tango, the samba, tha habanera. Takes some practice to get that groove sounding right on the keys, though.

Has it been 12 minutes yet? Of course it has. You have a few choices to make now. If you're in a hurry, you need to de-pressurize your pressure cooker quickly. Mine has a handy pressure-release valve. Flip the switch and steam shoots out for a minute or so, rendering the contraption considerably less lethal than the old-style pressure cookers (which surely took the occasional life -- imagine that: death by soup). If you don't have a de-pressurizing valve, I suppose you may run the thing under cool water to bring down the pressure, or just let it sit for however long it needs to. Your on your own in this department; I just can't carry the liability, understand?

Okay, now for another critical step: Once you remove the lid, take a hand blender to it. Blend the hell out of it for a few minutes, pulverizing the now-soft lentils and any onions or garlic pieces into a creamy, thick soup. Ladle into bowls and top with a little lemon juice spritzed on top and maybe even a dash of cilantro for that haute cuisine touch. A little salt usually perfects the dish.

It's a mean soup; you'll want it again and again. I was bragging about this soup to an Indian woman recently, and she wrote back to me referring to this (jokingly, I think) as "Kali Dahl." I wasn't sure what she meant, though I liked the sound of it. Kali has several possible meanings, many of them contradictory in nature. Check this out, for example:

"The scene for true Kali worship takes place in a cremation ground where the air is smoke laden and little specks of ash from burning funeral pyres fall on white, sun-dried bones scattered about and on fragments of flesh, gnawed and pecked at by carrion beasts and large black birds. It is a frightening place for most, but a favorite one for the "heroic" Mother worshipper who has burnt away all wordly desires and seeks nothing but union with her. This kind devotee fears nothing and knows no aversion." --from this page.

Yeahhhh!!! That's exactly the vibe I'm going for with this badass soup. So, thanks for tuning in to this rather off-the-wall edition. We'll return soon to our regularly scheduled programming.

Original Comments

Below, are the original comments on this post. Additional comments may be made via Facebook, below.

On October 17, 2006, Anonymous wrote:

Hey, my 1st time visiting.

Most ppl call it "pink dahl". Actually, "Kali dahl" is made w/ Urad dahl.

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