My father is a simple man. On any given evening, ask him what he would like for dinner and he’ll either reply – “you choose” or “daal roti” (pulses and flatbread).
I remember a time in the distant 90s when one of the fanciest restaurants in the city was a steakhouse at Nad Al Sheba. I can’t remember anything about it but two amorphous details. The first is how I got goosebumps whenever my parents announced that we would visit the steakhouse. As a 10-year-old, every trip to the restaurant made me feel immeasurably posh and grown up.
The second detail is the chef, whose face has since vanished from my mind, but whose warm, inviting demeanor I will never forget. Chef Prem Kumar was the sort of man who made menus redundant; he would look you in the eye, smile and decide what was best for you. I never remember anyone being less than pleased with his choice.
My father and his colleagues frequented the steakhouse regularly for business dinners. On one occasion, Chef Prem learned that a table booking for the company excluded my father. Dad, the simple man that he is, had planned to skip the steak dinner so that he could eat “home food” – my mother’s daal roti. Chef Prem instantly rang my father, adamant that skipping dinner at the steakhouse was simply not an option. My father relented. That evening, true to his nature, Chef Prem matched every guest with the steak of their dreams, except for my father. He was served no steak, but rather a plate of something that Chef Prem had cooked in his own home – daal roti.
There are times when I too crave nothing more than a well-salted bowl of daal. It happened last week as I was driving back from the hospital feeling rather ill. My husband, sensing my state of deep gloom, accurately determined that a bowl of hot chunky daal would be the only way to avert an apocalypse. We found ourselves at BBQ Tonight, a neighbourhood Pakistani restaurant in Ghusais where every diner had opted for the economical 30-dirham buffet spread of kababs, biryani and kheer. But there I was, overjoyed with my 6-dirham bowl of turmeric-yellow split black gram. I needed nothing more than a fat doughy comfort-laden tandoori naan and a bowl of raita to kill the lingering heat that I wish was never added into daal in the first place.
Daal is not boring. The less spice, cream or whatever else people feel the violent urge to mask its true flavour with, the more you can appreciate how earthy, subtly sweet and beany it tastes. For instance, shorbat adas or Arabic lentil soups retain the original essence of red lentils by keeping the spices to a minimum and often boiling in chicken stock, which complements the flavour rather than overwhelming it. Most mandi restaurants across the city, especially Tawasol by the Clock Tower, make a lentil soup that can be enjoyed solo with a slight squeeze of lemon or even spooned over a platter of rice and juicy meat.
The Afghanis typically get it right as well. My standard order at any Afghani restaurant in the Naif neighbourhood of Deira is a shallow plate of split chickpea (chana) or green gram (moong) daal. Whether it be at Kabul Darbar near the Ghurair Mosque or Qasar Al Afghan Kabab by the Naif police station or Afghan Ariana on the first floor of the building across the Naif Souk, I have yet to find a lacklustre bowl of Afghani daal. They usually serve their daal in a molten state, with softened chunky pieces of pulses floating about in a thickened starchy residual liquid. The same lentil broth is often ladled over minced meat Afghani dumplings, mantoo, as a dull yellow juicy garnish.
Daal is peasant food. When life gets complicated, a bowl of warm daal can bring you back down to earth, even if for a few fleeting moments until your last roti or grain of rice is over.
I remember collaborating on a pot of daal with my North Indian roommate back in college. True to my South Indian roots, I tossed in an aromatic mix of fried curry leaves and toasted mustard seeds and stepped away for only a minute, before realising that my roommate had rushed to correct the broth with her own “chownk” (tempering): cumin seeds, garlic and chilli.
I don’t know how Chef Prem Kumar spiced his daal for my father that evening. And I will never be able to ask, because he eventually joined the Culinary Institute of America in New York as a teacher. In 2007, he passed away from cancer. But the point is not what went into Chef Prem’s daal that made for a memory my father still fondly recounts till today. The point is that sometimes, the greatest of men are the humblest of men; the men who know to clear away the steak knives and fluted glasses because all you asked for was a plate of daal roti.