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The humble legume is cooked in each and every state of the country, but has such a homely appeal that most restaurants have just one version. In North Indian restaurants, it’s a no-brainer: Dal Makhni rules the roost here. However, so elemental are pulses to Indian food that everything from snacks (besan ka chidva and dahi bhalla) to desserts (besan laddoos and basundhi) are made with a variety of lentils. The good news is that you don’t have to stick to Dal Makhni when you eat out, because there are myriad interesting options on regional menus.
First up is Dalcha from Hyderabad, and we’re only mentioning it here because it contains equal quantities of chana dal and mutton, cooked until everything becomes a soft paste. It is eaten as a main course and is available at all the branches of Biryani Blues. Mahabelly may concentrate on the food of Christian Kerala, but their Parippu, made from whole green moong with very little ghee and coconut milk is quite similar to the version you’d find on a sadya with its sattvic flavours.
A short walk away is Dakshin, whose Tomato Pappu is the quintessential lentil preparation from Andhra Pradesh and is made with toovar dal and an onion-tomato-mustard seed tempering. According to the restaurant spokesperson, it is the hottest selling vegetarian item on the menu. Light years away in treatment of the same dal (toovar) is Suruchi, where toovar makes its appearance every single day of the year in the thali, so elemental is it to a Gujarati vegetarian meal. Thin and watery with a sweet-sour appeal, it has a distinctive taste, without either garlic or onion.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, Dal Meat is a full-bodied, robust dish, that reaches its high watermark in Embassy, where it has been a signature for decades. Yellow moong is carefully boiled, keeping each grain separately, then added to a mutton curry. Though the lentils are infused with the fragrance of the mutton, the grains are intact. The other lentil and mutton combination is the Parsi Dhansak, done to perfection in Rustom’s. Root vegetables and three kinds of washed lentils are slow-cooked and mutton pieces plus stock added. Served with rice that has been browned with onions and caramelized sugar, Dhansak is a full meal where the dal is in the background and the meat takes centrestage. The other dal preparation where dal forms the background is Machher Mude Diye Dal, where a single fish head is the show-stopper and the dal is the background chorus. Essentially a home-style preparation, you would not get it at too many restaurants, but the three-table Big Bong Theory in Shahpur Jat serves it on prior order.
Dal is a permanent fixture in Nepalese cuisine too. Black urad dal is cooked in an iron vessel so that the colour is inky black. Very little spicing means that the focus is the taste of the lentils themselves. You could say that Nepalese black dal is the non-dairy version of Punjabi Dal Makhni. Though there are no Nepalese restaurants in the NCR, a well-known caterer, Shreyaa Shah 9810013190, does an excellent job with a day’s notice.