Culture Tuesday is a new weekly column in which Best of Vegan Editor Samantha Onyemenam explores the cuisines of different cultures across the globe through a plant-based and vegan lens. Click here to read her column about Indian cuisine, here to read her column about Ghanaian cuisine, and here to read her column about Jamaican cuisine.
This article is written in collaboration with Priya of @spices.and.spoons on Instagram. All photographs are by her and each recipe was passed on to her by friends and family from the regions the recipes belong to.
Culture Tuesday – Exploration of Indian Cuisine Through Dal
Indian cuisine is one of the most popular cuisines enjoyed by people following plant-based lifestyles. Its cuisine, though featuring a great number of general practices and ingredients, features recipes for dishes which vary with the region due to factors such as climate, soil type, local culture, adopted culture (due to historical events, trade, immigration, and emigration), religion, and regional levels of wealth. The ingredients used to make the dishes are often based on what is locally produced and readily available within the region the recipe belongs to and the practices are based on those passed down through history with some international influences included.
Dal is the term used to refer to lentils, split peas, and beans in India. It also refers to the dishes, specifically, the soups and stews, made from these ingredients. Despite dal being one of the most popular dishes in India, it is cooked in noticeably different ways depending on the region. These differences are most noticeable in the consistency of the dish, its creaminess (or lack thereof), its spiciness (from chillies) as well as the ingredients visible post-cooking.
The ingredients used to make the dishes are often based on what is locally produced and readily available within the region the recipe belongs to and the practices are based on those passed down through history with some international influences included.
The most prominent contrasts in the preparation of dal between regions lie in the spices used and the handling of them. In South India chillies, in both fresh and powdered form are utilized more as well as methi (fenugreek seeds), kadi patta (curry leaves). These spices, alongside others, are used in both the cooking and finishing of the dal. In the cooking process, the spices are heated in a little oil to enhance their flavour before being added to the dal during the cooking process. The process of finishing the dal with spices is carried out through a technique known as, ‘Tadka.’ Tadka is a method of enriching and oil by frying spices in it when it is extremely hot to unlock their full flavour. This oil is then poured over the dal once it is done cooking, thereby imparting a bolder and delectable flavour on the dal.
In North India, spices such as tejpat (bay leaves), dalchini (cinnamon) and jeer (cumin seeds) are used more as well as a spice blend called, “Garam Masala.” Garam Masala is a combination of warm spices which include kali mirch (black pepper), laung (cloves), elaichi (black and green cardamom), chakraphool (star anise), dhania (coriander seeds), jeera (cumin seeds), dalchini (cinnamon), tejpat (bay leaves), jaiphal (nutmeg) and javitri (mace). They are used to flavour the dal during the cooking process to intensify its flavour. The spices are usually roasted whole in a process known as, ‘Bhuno,’ prior to being ground to give them a more pronounced depth of flavour. In the process of cooking dal in the northern regions, the spices tend to be heated towards the start of the dish and the other ingredients are added on top of that in the cooking process while in the southern region, the spices tend to be added in the middle of the cooking process as well as at the end as a hot garnish.
Dal is the term used to refer to lentils, split peas, and beans in India. It also refers to the dishes, specifically, the soups and stews, made from these ingredients.
The Central/West region tends to combine both southern and northern practices whilst having their own regional difference. In the use and handling of spices, those in that region also make dal using a spice blend although that is less likely to be Garam Masala and more likely to be blends specific to states in that region such as Goda Masala (also known as Kaala Masala) which is a Maharahtrian spice blend. Unlike the spice blends of the north, central/west spice blends tend to be spicy which is more akin to southern dishes. In addition to the similarity to the southern region, central/west dal is also often finished using the tadka method of garnishing and flavouring the dish with spices fried in hot oil.
The South Indian dal, sambhar, is rather liquid, flavoured using tamarind paste, as well as spices, and cooked with vegetables and more savoury fruits such as okra, winter melon, drumsticks, and aubergines. As for the central/west dal, amti, it tends to have an underlying sweetness which the dals of other regions do not have due to the Chinese influences and the use of tamarind pulp in the cooking process. Due to the dry climate in this region, fewer vegetables are available. Therefore, unlike sambhar, a South Indian dal, amti has a simpler/shorter ingredients list and its consistency is not punctuated by chunks and slices of vegetables. North Indian dal tends to not include vegetables, like that of central/west India. However, it also tends to be creamy through the use of creams and milks, such as watermelon seed cream, cashew cream, and coconut milk. The addition of creams or milk is characteristic of northern Indian cuisine. The cuisine is also characterized by the use of butter which can be substituted with vegan butter when preparing vegan-friendly dal. These attributes are visible in the recipe for dal makhani.
The most prominent contrasts in the preparation of dal between regions lie in the spices used and the handling of them.
Below are three dal recipes from these three regions. They feature the differences discussed in this article thereby acting as symbols that display some of the regional differences of Indian cuisine. Despite their contrasts in consistency, ingredients, and flavour, each dish is delicious and offers a beautiful experience of Indian cuisine.
If this article on vegan Indian cuisine inspired you to learn more, you might also like:
- Culture Tuesday: An Exploration of Indian Cuisine
- Culture Tuesday: An Exploration of Jamaican Cuisine
- Culture Tuesday: An Exploration of Native American Cuisine of North America
- Culture Tuesday: An Exploration of Ethiopian Cuisine
- Culture Tuesday: An Exploration of Sri Lankan Cuisine
- Culture Tuesday: An Exploration of Somali Cuisine
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