Wonder what makes this Dhaba special so addictive? Yes, it is the tempering but there is also the composition, say culinary experts and nutritional therapist dig in.  

By Madhulika Dash; Picture courtesy Chef Gaurav Raghuvanshi and stock images

Dal Tadka or Tadka wali Dal. Come to think of it, aside having food at home, it is not one of the dal varietals like Dal Makhani or Panchmel Dal that is in our must-eat list when you go out. Its recent years nondescriptiveness can be gauged by the simple fact that though Dal Tadka is a part of the menu, it really doesn’t get the kind of attention that perhaps a langwar wali dal would in a certain places or for that matter the Moradabadi Dal, which has transcended from the comforts of the home kitchen to conquer palates as a popular street food. And yet, dal – especially the Dal Tadka or Tadka Wali Dal –  not only remains a quintessential part of almost every order that is placed in an Indian restaurant but also the one thing that the mind would distinctively remember as part of the meal experience. The reason for this according to nutritional anthropologist Sveta Bhassin, “isn’t just our close association with dal which is an integral part of at least one meal we have on a daily basis, but also the wholesomeness the dish provides. Dal Tadka of North or whether it is the Tadka Dal of Eastern India serve two very important purpose: one, they are the rich source of nutrition (protein, vitamins, minerals, folate, fibre and antioxidants being part of the package); and two, the way it is tempered/cooked, it aids in digesting, assimilation of other nutrients that help in boosting of immunity and the bone, skin and muscle health, and (perhaps the most important of all) ensures there is this calming of mind thanks to the use of ghee or fat that brings about a state of zen. In fact, the phrase “dal chawal” isn’t a common reference to the idea of having a meal but also showcases how important lentil was in ancient times.

Dal, says Chef Pradeep Tejwani, “in the history of Indian cuisine has been that single, most important produce on which the most work has been done, not just to understand the different varieties of dal but how to get the maximum nourishment from these nourishing super seeds. Both dynasties and science have worked on this single ingredient since the start of the civilisation. Result, we have dal in almost every single classic dish including dosai, pithas, vadas or badas and even puranpolis that has its genesis in apupa. This is aside the number of dishes that was made of dal, be it the famous Guguni that was served in the wedding of Emperor ChandraGupt Maurya to Helena of Greece or whether it was Vidalapaka that was made from the flour of five dal mix, the Panchmel dal that King Nala (the first MasterChef and author who wrote Pakadarpanam) made to impress Queen Damyanti or the vegetable flavoured dal made by Bheemsen (the famous warrior-chef Pandava) that led to the Dalma and the culinary school we call Bheema-rasaya and in later years the array of dishes including the latest version of the Panchmel Dal – said to have made to celebrate the creation of the Panch Mahal – or the Moradabai Dal that became a standard fare on Aurangzeb’s table.”

Such prized was dal for our ancestors that when Shah Jahan was imprisoned by his son, the only dal he asked was, as per the legendary Jiggs Kalra, “ the moong-masoor that he would often like to have seasoned with asafoetida, rock salt, jeera, browned onion with a dollop of ghee. The famous prince Dara Sikoh too loved his fare with slivers of raw mango. A fond testimony of how much dal was preferred by the kings, commoners and the battle-hardened soldiers was when Aamti became Sambar. But it wasn’t the kings who were fond of their lentil and the lentil preparations, vedas too extolled the virtues of the many dal varieties that grew in India making it an important part of the treatment – rasam, anyone? But the one dal preparation that even the Vedas held high was that of the mix of two to three dals that has been tempered for goodness was the mix dal – which eventually became what in today’s parlance, adds Chef Tejwani, “is referred to as Dal Tadka or Tadka Dal. A standard fare not just in all eateries but at homes too. Of course, the main emphasis is on the tempering but back then such preparation was about the composition right down to the quantity of hing used to enhance the wellness and taste of the dish.  Concurs seasoned Chef Gaurav Raghuvanshi, who has been researching on the dhaba cuisine across India and is astounded at the kind of standardisation that has gone into not just making of the dal, but the precision in which the taste is added through tempering to enable the dal to be more nourishing and tastier.

Such, continues the North Cuisine expert, “is the technique of making dal tadka that it does do the work of what a composite thali would often do in terms of satiating, nourishing and even providing with the necessary burst of energy that allows a person to function productively. This process of extracting flavours while keeping the nutrients intact begins with first mixing the dals. Often this twining is done on the season of the dal and on the characteristics of each dal along with the nutritional factor. Often the mix of dal is done in terms of taste and texture, and one would often find it is the tuvar/arhar dal along channa dal or the moong-masoor combination in the north; while it is a complex mix of urad, channa, arhar, masoor and other in the East. The idea behind is not just creating a bowl that would have all the nutrients of a proper meal but also the taste factor. Usually, a dal with texture is paired with the dal that has aroma and easy to digest, as together they would give that mouthfeel that we associate with a good bowl of dal.” The second reason adds Chef Tejwani, “is the taste foreplay. Each dal takes on the tempering differently and hence there is this layer of flavours is rich and balmy at the same time. The third is of course digestion, while tuvar and moong digest faster, channa and masoor take time and hence the feeling of satiation remains for a long time.”

It is the same with the Eastern India Dal Tadka, adds Chef Gaurav, “which is a clever blend of five heavy dal which is then cooked in the masala and then in some places has an egg added to crank up the taste – it is almost meat-like - and wholesomeness.” Interestingly, while either of the dal dishes were ideally created as part of the one pot balanced meal concept for the period of draught, calamities and tragedies, and if historians are to be believed, “to feed a moving army or a battalion of immigrants, the rise of Dal Tadka came with the highway where it captured its main audience – the traders, travellers and passerbys who would frequent the roads for work and would be looking at these nourishing, delicious meals that were filling and yet didn’t punch a hole in the packet. That’s when these slow cooked lentils that could be finished on demand and served grew in popularity as it became a go-to-meal for many who lived on the highway.”

The fact that most tadka dal, even in the East, would often be finished on demand right in front of the diners added to the appeal as it was associated to fresh food, and the rich, velvety mouth feel of this generously seasoned and tempered dish made it good enough to be the only thing that was needed to make the humble fare seems like a feast. The added bonus: it didn’t come with the heaviness that meat and other qormas often made one feel. For those on the move, dal tadka -  a dish that could be made to pander thanks to the last minute, a la mode tempering – and had the familiar home-like taste (only cranked up with spice and an extra dollop of ghee) became the highlight of a good travel meal.  Such appeasing was the flavours of a well-done dal tadka that eventually began using lemon juice in the finishing to allow for better digestion and a lightness (more so during summers) that the dal tadka became not just the obvious meal choice for the conscientious travellers especially traders, soldiers and bankers who worked on a schedule, but also had this natural progression as the defacto part of the lavish celebratory meal. After all, who could avoid a good helping of the balmy dal.  

And just like that, tadka dal that perhaps was initially curated to serve a nourishing purpose by the Vedas became the foundation of what we today know as the Dhabba Culture or the food of the highway, say the culinary expert, that was further reshaped by the community of truck drivers who not only shaped the modern day highway food, but also one soulfood that has remained an integral part of their meals even today – the humble Tadka Dal.