Dal, a lentil-based soup, is a staple of Bengali cooking — at least in my family. It didn’t matter that we grew up in Ohio, about as far from Kolkata and Dhaka as you can get, we had dal with dinner almost every night. Moog dal, musoor dal, cholar dal, toor dal, yellow split-pea dal. You know that whole Forrest Gump riff on shrimp? That was the Bhattacharjee household’s relationship to every kind of lentil in existence. It was one of my late father’s favorite dishes, and my mom liked to joke that he could eat just dal-bhaath (lentils and rice) for every meal. Me? Not so much. I looked upon dal with the kind of horror that middle American white kids saved for their broccoli and Brussels sprouts.
The only way you could get me to enjoy lentils was in khichuri, a classic Bengali comfort food that combines dal, rice, spices and ghee and usually comes with a side of something fried. Let’s face it, fried potatoes on the side make any dish a winner.
Fast-forward 25 years. I’m a singleton in New York City who fends for herself in the kitchen. I’ve mastered a few basics — the aforementioned khichuri, chicken curry, chickpea masala — and, wonder of wonders, I’m into dal. I buy ready-made microwavable dal, I eat dal with gusto when I go home for visits, etc. I am a late-in-life dal convert! This week, I found myself with less than half a cup of red lentils in the cupboard and snow coming down outside. What’s a dal girl to do?
Make red lentil-pumpkin soup! Or, as I dubbed it, musoor-lau soup.
1/2 cup red lentils, aka musoor dal
1 15oz can of pumpkin puree
24oz chicken or vegetable stock
1-2 tbsp cooking oil (I use canola)
1/2 tsp minced garlic
1 small onion, diced, or 1 tsp onion powder
1 tsp cumin powder
1/2 tsp ginger powder
1/4 tsp curry powder
salt and pepper to taste
(Spice quantities are approximations. Any desi home cook will tell you that you just throw stuff in according to your tongue and your gut feeling.)
Preparation: Heat oil in a multi-quart saucepan or pot on low. Fry the garlic and onion until the onion goes clear or the powder has browned a little. (I burned my garlic, as you can tell in the photo. Let’s just pretend it’s fancy and “blackened.”) You can toss in a little cumin here, too, so it adds to the initial flavor. Add the lentils and fry until evenly coated with oil and spice. Do not let them stick to the surface. Add 16 ounces of the stock and the pumpkin puree, slowly stirring. If you have a fancy hand-mixer thingy, I guess you could use that. I just have a hatha (a big-handled spoon). Stir in the ginger powder, cumin powder and curry powder. Keep stirring until the pumpkin goes smooth and then up the heat, bringing the mixture to a boil.
I found that kicking off Bollywood dance party was the perfect thing to do while the dal boiled:
Once the mixture comes to a boil, reduce to a simmer, add in the last of the stock, cover and heat for 25-40 minutes. Basically, you want the lentils to cook through, so check their consistency occasionally, give the dal a good stir, and tip in some more ginger or some salt.
And dance some more. Definitely dance some more:
Once the lentils are cooked all the way through and the soup is spiced to your liking, serve in bowls and garnish with a few whole cumin seeds. Ta-da! You have just committed Mala’s freak winter storm dal…and shared in a lifetime of my food-related memories.