I first learned to cook during the year I studied in England. University students there typically fend for themselves in dorm kitchens, rather than relying on meal plans.
With little free time and even less money, most of us took to dumping readymade soups or canned beans over toast or pasta. If we were feeling fancy (or starved for protein), we crowned these starchy, carby meals with a fried egg.
That experience left me with an abiding kernel of culinary wisdom: Any light dish can be transformed into a stomach-filling meal simply by adding pasta.
Enter my Punjabi mother-in-law, who re-educated me in the kitchen and taught me Indian home cooking. Thanks to her, I can whip up a full meal from my usual pantry staples (i.e., lentils, rice, spices, garlic, and ginger) and a few stray vegetables (e.g., onion, tomato, potato, carrot). If only she’d been there, in England, to save me from British student food (and my own culinary incompetence).
This meal combines her very traditional North Indian lentil soup recipe (given below) with my favorite curly Q pasta (aka, cavatappi)—a tribute to both of my formative cooking experiences.
These lentils (chana daal) are particularly rich and flavorful—almost sweet. My mother-in-law cooks them with tomato, onion, and cumin seeds—a piquant trio of seasonings that typify food in the North Indian state of Punjab (where my mother-in-law was raised). The real kicker is the finishing touch: licorice-y roasted fennel seeds and a few squeezes of fresh lemon juice.
If these lentils were seasoned just a bit differently, this meal could pass for home cooking in southern Italy. But I like to think this is what my mother-in-law would have made for dinner if she’d been a student, living and cooking in a British dorm.
Rama Saini’s Chana Daal (Gurdaspur Style) / serves 4-6
1 cup chana daal (from any Indian grocery store)
3-6 cups water
1 tablespoon oil (my recommendation: canola)
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
2 cloves garlic (diced)
1 thumb-size piece of ginger (diced/grated)
2 green chilies (diced); or 1/2 teaspoon of crushed red chilies; or ground red chili powder
1 small onion (diced)
1 teaspoon salt (or to taste)
1 plum tomato (diced)
1 teaspoon turmeric powder
1 tablespoon fennel seeds
1/2 a lemon (juice only)
Optional: handful fresh cilantro (chopped)
Bring chana daal to a boil in 3 cups of water.
When the water boils, spoon off the white foam floating on the surface (this is the gas released by the beans) and turn heat down to medium to maintain an aggressive simmer. (Note: Keep adding water —probably another 2-3 cups—as the daal cooks.)
Meanwhile, coat a sauce pan with oil, turn heat on medium/low, and add cumin seeds. When the seeds are fragrant and start to “dance” in the oil, add garlic, ginger, chilies, onion, and salt. Cook until the onions are transparent and very soft (but not caramelized—about 10 minutes, stirring every few minutes).
Add tomato and cook until it breaks down into a paste and all excess water cooks out.
Add turmeric powder and stir to coat the tomato-onion paste evenly.
When the simmering daal is very soft, and the individual grains start breaking down into a gravy-like consistency, add the onion-tomato-spice paste (aka, the tardka) into the daal. Stir thoroughly to mix in the paste/tardka; then let the daal keep simmering so that the flavors can meld (about 5 minutes).
Meanwhile, in a small pan, dry roast fennel seeds over medium heat until they are fragrant and just barely brown.
Add the fennel seeds to the daal, stir thoroughly, and simmer to meld the flavors (about 5 minutes).
When individual grains of daal are no longer visible, your daal is ready. Garnish with
lime lemon juice and cilantro (if you wish) and serve over rice or—if you’re up for some culture-crossing comfort food—pasta.
Check out Anne Noyes Saini’s ongoing food + audio projects on SoundCloud.