This summer, I want to learn how to make my favorite Indian foods. The ones that remind me of home and childhood; Mom’s cooking, in short. I’ve attempted this before but found it frustrating. Other second-gen Indian kids will sympathize when I say that my mom’s instructions have been, well, less than precise. Take dal, the lentil-based staple in our house.
(As an aside, I was about to describe dal as a kind of soup or stew, but those words do not resonate with me at all. Such comparisons, while often meant to help those unfamiliar with the food, can nevertheless reinforce the idea that non-Western food needs to be made legible through Western food to acquire legitimacy, rather than simply stand on its own. So, no, dal is not like a soup or stew. Dal is dal, and if you’re unfamiliar with it, I encourage you to try it and acquaint yourself!)
Dal is not a specific dish, like eggplant parm, but a type of dish, like pizza. Just as many different ingredients can top a pizza, many lentils can get cooked into dal. I grew up hearing their names—masoor, moong, urad, chana—and seeing their distinct dried bodies—flat orange disks, oblong green cylinders, split yellow spheres—but I didn’t know which names belonged to which lentil. During a weekend visit six years ago, I opened my parents’ pantry, poured each variety into a catori (small glass bowl), photographed it, and with their help noted each name.
So, how to cook dal? Mom said to put the lentils in a pot and add enough water so they are more than submerged. Add namak (salt), haldi (turmeric powder) and lal mirch (red chili powder), bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer until cooked. Make the tadka by heating oil, add spices until they’re cooked, and then add the tadka to the dal. Mix until everything is cooked together, taste, add more salt or spices if needed, and that’s it.
I peppered her with follow-up questions: Do I soak the lentils first? How much of each spice do I put in the water? How long until the dal is cooked? You can soak them but you don’t have to. A few pinches of namak, only a little haldi and lal mirch, but of course it depends on how much dal you’re making. The dal is cooked when the lentils and water don’t look like separate things.
For as long as I’ve known him, my husband has had a binder containing sheet-protected printouts of his paternal grandmother’s recipes. Each page offers what one expects from a cookbook: name of dish; list of ingredients, with amounts specified; step-by-step instructions with specific times and temperatures.
My queries to Mom were not eliciting that kind of detail. If I wanted to create a similar cookbook of her recipes, I was going to have to extract the information from her line-by-line. I walked through each step of the dal instructions, asking for amounts and timings. Mom produced some numbers, but it was clear she was guessing. Hearing my sighs, she told me she didn’t cook with exact numbers. Having made this food for decades, she just knew. Intellectually, I understood that, but without directions, how was I supposed to gain that experience? She encouraged me to just try, assuring me that it wasn’t that hard.
I decided I’d watch her make my favorite dishes and quantify everything myself. First up was chana masala, chickpeas in an earthy, aromatic gravy. I dutifully observed each ingredient and its amount, noted the different levels of stove heat applied at the various steps, and explained how Mom determined what to do— (“Once the tomatoes are pulpy and smooth and the oil has separated and appeared on the sides, add the garbanzos.”)
Since then, I’ve only written this kind of detailed recipe for one other dish—Indian rice—and that barely counts because it’s far simpler than chana masala. Instead, I’ve called Mom for general instructions when I want to make something and then searched online or in my cookbooks for specific recipes. I’ve made a few good dals here and there, especially last summer when many took up cooking as a pandemic escape, but most have been middling.
Now that I have the summer off, I’m re-committing to honing my skills. After a dismaying pot of dal last week made from a recipe in an American cookbook (I know…), I resolved that I was finished with recipes, at least for this goal. If I want to make food that tastes like Mom’s, I need to take her approach. It’s time to stop trying to divine the recipe and start developing the intuition.
Last week, I asked her about one of my absolute favorite dishes, whole urad lentils made into kali dal, aka dal makhani (though we don’t put cream). I cooked it on Tuesday. And you know, it was this close to hers. The aroma was spot on. The taste was a little light on the salt and tomato, but nevertheless closer than my past attempts.
Earlier today I opened a document on my computer and started typing notes —the steps I took, the things I’ll do differently next time. After all, this is how you improve, right? Record what I did this time so I don’t repeat the same mistakes next time.
But the words felt flat and unnecessary as they appeared on the screen. This is unusual for me, as someone who lives very much in language. After my demographics (woman, Indian-American), writer is one of my strongest identity affiliations. Writing is how I make sense of myself and the world. That’s a big reason why I’m drawn to post-structural philosophies and discursive methods in my research. Words are the avenue through which I express myself best.
Nevertheless, while writing those words about my kali dal this morning, I felt not the thrill of articulation, but the melancholy of loss. The words couldn’t capture how I knew after one taste that the tadka needed more tomato. How I knew while looking at the tadka that the tomatoes could have cooked longer or that the masala wasn’t quite incorporated enough. Even now, I can’t describe how I knew it. Or rather, I don’t want to. Because once I write it down, the words become the authority.
I’m in the middle of the book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. Its author mentions that one of the reasons why Europeans considered Indigenous American cultures less sophisticated was that some (though not all) lacked writing systems or didn’t use them extensively. While I’m fascinated by the concept of society without writing, I cannot personally fathom living in one, given how much writing has enriched my life. But this morning’s experience reminded me that while writing is valuable, it doesn’t capture everything. There are other ways of knowing. And when it comes to something as material, as sensual, as making food, perhaps those other ways are worth attending to.
My fixation on documenting Mom’s food in recipe format prioritized process over practice. I wanted her to tell me what to do rather than learn how to do it. That lesson I grasped years ago, after meticulously observing her chana masala process but not feeling any motivation to make the same detailed documentation for my other favorite dishes. But I didn’t fully embrace it until today, when I realized that I don’t have to write down my mistakes to learn from them. I don’t need the words when I have the experience.
I know what this food is supposed to taste like. I grew up eating this food. This food made me. And now, I want to learn to make it.