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The defining dish of Indian cuisine is dal

A few weeks ago I caused a tiny stir when I said that the dosa was now India’s national dish.

Many of you complained that this was a South Indian dish that most North Indians never even ate at home. So how could it possibly be any kind of national dish?


Fair point.


   It was never my intention to suggest that happy Punjabis hunkered down to cooking dosas every day. I am well aware that, outside the South, few people make dosas at home.


   My point was not that the dosa had taken over home kitchens all over India. It was that the dosa had supplanted tandoori chicken, once regarded as India’s most famous dish. Even more than the dosa, tandoori chicken is a restaurant dish. And even in North India, I know of nobody who cooks it at home. Besides, I imagine more North Indians now eat dosas than bother with tandoori chicken.


   But the controversy got me thinking. Is there really a single dish that we could call our national dish in the sense that it is made in home kitchens all over India, given the diversity of Indian cuisine?


   Inevitably, this took me back to a controversy from last year. That was when a government-sponsored initiative declared that khichri was India’s national dish. A photo op was organised. A cauldron of khichri was made and such noted chefs as Baba Ramdev arrived to pose for the cameras as this photo-friendly khichri was being prepared.


   Frankly, I didn’t think that the choice of khichri was a bad one, the publicity stunt notwithstanding. Khichri is a dish that was created in the subcontinent. During the medieval period, entire armies were sustained on khichri. Caste Hindus who would not eat communal food prepared by army cooks, would make individual portions of khichri for themselves. The dish was easy to cook, required relatively few ingredients and was a one-pot meal.


   When the Mughals got here, they were fascinated by khichri (which, in those days, was made with all kinds of grains, not just rice) and adapted it for their own royal cuisine. Humayun spent over a decade in exile but his cooks took the rice version of khichri with them and are said to have introduced the Iranians to the idea of cooking rice with lentils. The Emperor Jehangir was so fascinated by a Gujarati khichri (probably made with millets) that he took cooks from Gujarat to Delhi and ate khichri regularly.


   Others have been as fascinated. Few Indians would recognise the British kedgeree as having anything to do with Indian khichri but that apparently is where the dish – long a breakfast staple at country houses – comes from. Though the Brits added boiled egg, smoked haddock and God alone knows what else to the rice, the name betrays the origins of the dish: kedgeree is how the sahibs would pronounce khichri.


   Sadly, following the Ramdev-blessed photo op, a controversy arose over whether khichri was actually our national dish. Many people wondered why an ancient Hindu dish that was entirely vegetarian had been chosen to represent India. Was this a political statement?


   I thought the controversy was silly. Given that at least a third of all Indians are vegetarians, it made sense to use a vegetarian dish to represent Indian food. Nor does khichri have to necessarily be vegetarian (though the government-sponsored version certainly was). Bengalis make a non-vegetarian version and so do Muslim communities all over India.


   The alternative national dish, put forward by many of those who were unhappy with the choice of khichri, was biryani.


   This led to another objection.


   Wasn’t biryani a Muslim dish?


   Well, yes, it is associated with Muslims all over India because it is cooked during celebrations. But so what? You don’t have to be a Muslim to eat biryani just as you don’t have to be a Hindu to enjoy khichri. And we are a diverse and secular country, so it shouldn’t matter whether a dish was popularised by Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Jains, Sikhs or whoever.


"Archaeologists have found dal grains at sites dating back to 1800 BC."

   Was biryani an Indian dish? The skeptics were doubtful. Didn’t it come to us from the Middle East?


   The short answer is that while the pilau may well have originated in Turkey, biryani appears to have been invented in Delhi (no, not Lucknow or Hyderabad). One theory has it that, confronted with the Indian khichri tradition, chefs at the Delhi court created a dish that merged the moistness and texture of Indian rice dishes with the original West Asian pilau. (And of course they used our very own spices.)


   That led to a third objection. Doesn’t biryani have to be non-vegetarian? Can a dish that depends on meat be called India’s national dish?


   If you are on Twitter, you will know where I am going with this. My friend Sanjay Hegde has run a brave campaign to argue that a vegetable biryani is just as legitimate as a mutton biryani. As of this writing, that Twitter war continues.


   I love biryani and I recognise that all of India is obsessed with biryani these days. But I don’t think it is India’s national dish, though to be fair, the biryani has the ability to take on the characteristics of whichever area it is cooked in.


   A Kerala biryani is delicious but its flavours have very little in common with the Lucknow version. (Even the rice that is used is different.)


   But my vote wouldn’t necessarily go to khichri either. On our greatest dish, my views have remained largely unchanged over the last decade.


   The defining dish of Indian cuisine through the centuries is dal.


   Think about it. The tuvair, the lentil that goes into Gujarati dal and sambhar, has been around for millennia. There are references to it in Buddhist literature from as far back as 400 BC. (Arhar is a cousin of the tuvair.) Dal turns up in the Rig Veda (three dals are mentioned: urad, masoor and moong). Archaeologists have found dal grains at sites dating back to 1800 BC.


   Not only is dal truly Indian from before the beginnings of recorded history, it is also not associated with any one religion. Everybody eats dal (except perhaps for parts of the North East). When the Parsis got to India in the seventh century, they were so taken with dal (then largely unknown in Persia), that they began to cook it with meat and created dhansak. At Sikh gurdwaras, dal is an important langar dish. Most Indian Christian communities have their own dal dishes.


   When the Moguls got here, they found dal to be an exotic ingredient, not familiar to them from their days in Samarkand. But within a generation, they were all eating dal and khichri.


   So, if there is one dish that really unites India, it is dal.


   Sure, khichri is nice too but it depends on dal.


   Intriguingly, dal remains a peculiarly Indian obsession. You do find lentils in Middle Eastern cooking but they much prefer the chickpea. They do have a few lentil dishes in West Asia and North Africa, but they are not the mainstay of the cuisine and the dal probably went from India. The kusheree of Egypt is a version of the khichri.


   In most of the Western world, the dals of choice are derived from the kidney bean which was discovered in America. (The British planted it in Punjab creating the ‘rajma-chawal’ craze.) The French claim a long history for the cassoulet, but it is made with a bean that was only discovered in America. There are some lentils in European cooking. France is famous for Puy lentils (like our moong), but they form a small part of the cuisine tradition.


   So why are we wasting so much time fighting over khichri and biryani?


   Let’s just accept that dal is the defining dish of Indian cuisine whether it is the sambhar of South India or the black dal of Punjab.


   It is a dish that unites all Indians and one that nobody can object to.


   Even Baba Ramdev would happily rush over for a photo op with a cauldron of dal!




  • Sushil Samtani 01 Oct 2018

    Agreed Mr. Vir. Next, you could possibly do a piece on the incredible versatility of Dal preparations across India. We Sindhis' do at least two unique dal dishes which, if made well, define the refinement and delight which dals bring to the table.

Posted On: 29 Sep 2018 04:47 PM
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