Veggie Might: Re-creating Comfort Food (Dal and Rice with Ginger)

Written by the fabulous Leigh, Veggie Might is a weekly Thursday column about all things Vegetarian.

When World Curry Tour ’09 began, I was confused by “curry” and have since tried to educate myself. I came across this passage in Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors by Lizzie Collingham: “In Bengal, the meals of the poor are made up of a rice, little dal flavored with salt, chilies, and a few spices…”

Immediately, I was transported back to the late 1990s when I was a waitron for the woman with little regard for vegetarians. Then, all of the bussers and a couple of the baristas at the restaurant were from Bangladesh. During the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, they would break their daylong fast at 6:00 pm by spreading out a comfort food banquet, courtesy of their wives and mothers.

And every night, they would share their bounty with the rest of us. Mohammad and Akbar, in particular, took joy in sharing their native cuisines. I always felt guilty taking their food after they’d gone all day without eating, but they reassured me (and it was quite evident) that there was plenty.

One dish stood out to me: a thick and comforting yellow split pea porridge with a zing of ginger and a flash of heat. At the time, I was not well versed in Indian or Southeast Asian cuisine. This flavor combination was new to me and I wanted more.

I begged Akbar for his wife, Shipa’s, recipe, thinking he would need to ask her and get back to me. To my surprise, he rattled it off like he’d been making it his whole life.

“It’s easy,” he said. “You just take 6 cups of water, 1 cup dal, 1 cup of rice—must be basmati—an onion, a head of garlic, ginger…”

I wrote furiously on my waiter’s notepad, excited to be getting an authentic Bengali recipe. Mohammed piped up that he’d get me the chick pea fritter recipe too. I gave him an enthusiastic nod while I scribbled.

“How much ginger?” I asked Akbar.

“This much,” he said, indicating about a 4-inch piece.

“Okay, go ahead,” I panted, ready for more.

“And 6 green, finger chilies,” he said, holding up his pinky. I laughed. “That’s it. Just put it all in a pot with the water and salt, let it boil, and stir it until the rice is done.”

“That’s it?” I asked skeptically. I didn’t know what questions to ask at the time. Just getting the ingredients seemed to be enough.

“That’s it,” he beamed.

That wasn’t quite it. At least for me, who was unaccustomed to working with these flavors. Trying to recreate someone else’s comfort food is almost always fraught with error.

On my first attempt, I ignored Akkie’s admonition to use basmati rice, instead using regular brown rice to make it “healthier.” To say it came out like paste is an insult to glue. Not only that, I also realized that something got lost between the instructional translation and my mediocre culinary skills.

Over the years, I’ve attempted the dish a couple more times, but it’s never been as good as I remember. Then on Sunday the light bulb came on, after dreaming about this dish for 10 years, the scrap from my waiter’s notebook long gone.

I knew exactly what to do: cook the onions, garlic, and spices in the pot before adding the water, dal, and BASMATI. It’s still a one-pot dish, but with a 1,000 times more flavor. It tasted exactly as I remembered. Akkie, and dare I say, Shipa, who I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting, would be proud. Plus, my charming dinner guest loved it.

  • Yellow split peas are similar to split pigeon peas, also called toor dal at the Indian market. For this attempt, I used toor dal because that’s what I had on hand.
  • I also used brown basmati rice, maintaining the spirit of the dish and increasing the health benefit/fiber content.
  • Freeze your ginger root in advance for easy grating. Thanks again, C for the tip!
  • I stopped by the restaurant today to ask Akbar’s permission to use his family’s recipe. He gave his approval, but says I did it wrong. Apparently, I really was supposed to put everything in the pot and boil the crap out of it while stirring madly. I’ll give it another try that way and post the results in the comments. In the meantime, the method below works like a dream…a delicious, spicy, gingery, this-could-replace-any-number-of-my-childhood-comfort-foods dream.
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Shipa’s Dal and Rice with Ginger and Green Chilies
Serves 4–5

1 cup yellow split peas (or toor dal)
1 cup brown basmati rice
1 tbsp canola oil
1 large yellow onion, chopped
6–8 cloves garlic, crushed and minced
5–6 green chilies, finely chopped (small, pinky-finger-sized; use few for a milder dish)
4” x 1” knob ginger, grated (about 3–4 tbsp)
6 cups water
salt to taste

1) Heat oil in a stock pot or large saucepan.

2) Add the onion and sauté until soft.

3) One at a time, add garlic, chilies, and ginger, cooking for a minute or two between each addition.

4) When the onions are clear(ish) and fragrant, add the water, dal, and rice.

5) Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and cover.

6) Cook for 40 minutes or until dal and rice is tender and water is absorbed. Stir occasionally to avoid scorching.

7) Allow to cool for a few minutes if you can wait that long. I couldn’t. The aroma is irresistible and I have the burnt tongue to prove it.

Approximate Calories, Fat, Fiber, and Price per Serving
Serves 4: 410.4 calories, 5.5g fat, 10.5g fiber, $.60
Serves 5: 328.3 calories, 4.4g fat, 8.4g fiber, $.48

1 cup toor dal: 703 calories, 3g fat, 31g fiber, $.62
1 cup brown basmati rice: 685 calories, 5 g fat, 6g fiber, $.70
1 tbsp canola oil: 120 calories, 14g fat, $.08
1 large yellow onion: 60 calories, 0g fat, 3g fiber, $.75
8 cloves garlic: 33.6 calories, 0g fat, 0g fiber, $.10
6 green chilies: 18 calories, 0g fat, 1g fiber, $.07
1 4” knob ginger: 22 calories, 0g fat, 1g fiber, $.06
salt: negligible calories, fat, fiber, $.02
Totals: 1641.6 calories, 22g fat, 42g fiber, $2.40
Per serving (totals/4): 410.4 calories, 5.5g fat, 10.5g fiber, $.60
(totals/5): 328.3 calories, 4.4g fat, 8.4g fiber, $.48