Next week marks the first British Dal Festival, which this year is taking place in my home city of Bristol. Surely there couldn't be a clearer prompt to write a little about one of my favourite dishes and share some of my favourite recipes with you?
If dal (dahl, dhal?) was a person, they would inspire severe envy. They’d be clever, funny, beautiful, rich, sociable, hardworking - and so nice that you couldn't even dislike them. Because dal, in its various guises, really does have it all. It’s delicious and luxurious, yet also easy and cheap to make, very nutritious and incredibly versatile. You can eat it as a soup with a hunk of bread, serve it as a side dish to a curry, or dress it up as the main event with extra toppings, condiments and rice or chapattis. It's also welcome at any time of year. As Felicity Cloake observes, “the fresh, sharp spices and clean herbs work as well on a cooling summer evening as a dark winter's night.”
Little wonder, then, that dal has become a staple dinner in my home. For me, dal in any form is pure comfort. It’s a bowl of deep flavours that I can wallow in, with a gentle, creamy texture that soothes and satisfies. And I’m not the only one - I’ve spoken to many others, from different backgrounds and with different tastes, who regularly cook dal. It seems that this dish, or rather the array of dal dishes from across the Indian subcontinent, have become beloved by many communities living in Britain.
I’ve eaten dals made with different pulses, cooked in different ways and served with different toppings, yet I've not even scratched the myriad surface of this dish. However, I’ve shared three firm favourites with you below to get you started on your dal addiction:
The showstopper: Dhal with crispy sweet potato and quick coconut chutney (Anna Jones)
If you're looking for a dal to turn heads, look no further than this one from Anna Jones. I’m not surprised that it has become one of her most popular dishes. Whilst the spiced, spinach-swirled dal is delicious by itself, it is the topping of roasted sweet potatoes and bright coconut chutney that elevates it to the realm of a showstopper. It looks pretty gorgeous, too. This is the dal to serve to your friends when you’re looking to impress. (Pictured below with a 'rustic' homemade chapatti).
The weekday workhorse: Lentil, tomato and coconut dahl (Elly Curshen)
Make a batch of Elly Curshen’s dal and you’ll have six portions ready to grab from the freezer when you need a quick dinner. Elly isn’t constrained by ‘authenticity’ and plays with her dal for delicious effect, suggesting three different toppings and a fourth option that transforms the dal into a soup. I can confirm that all variations are excellent, and can even be mixed-and-matched to keep things interesting. My favourite suggested toppings include crispy seared tofu or a soft-boiled egg, the yolk bleeding deep yellow into the red-gold dal. (Pictured below with 6-minute egg, wilted greens and breadcrumbs.)
The taste of home: Gujarati dal with peanuts and star anise (Meera Sodha)
This dish can be eaten as a side dish, but it is delicious in its own right owing to its layers of robust flavour: the fragrance of star anise and curry leaves, the spike of lemon offset by the sweetness of honey, the crunch of toasted peanuts. “This dal is my and every other Gujarati’s taste of home,” Meera Sodha says in the introduction to the recipe. It’s been made so often in our household that, for me too, it now feels like the ultimate, homely meal. A comfort blanket in a bowl, if you will. (Pictured below with brown basmati rice and peanuts, and awaiting a swirl of yogurt.)