Last week, I heard about a compliment someone wrote for another person: he is simple like dal chawal. I chuckled; it was amusing, succinct, and true. Dal chawal is a simple food.
However, to an NRI South Indian child who grew up on rasam and sambhar, dal chawal wasn’t exactly a staple. I mean, I ate it sometimes when we dined outside, or at my best friend’s house, but it was rare that we cooked it at home for the first 10 years of my life. Maybe we did but I can’t recall it now. Memory is a strange thing, and sometimes things establish themselves in your brain far later than when they were first introduced to you. Perhaps dal chawal’s prominence in my own diet started much earlier, but it’s only properly lodged in my brain from Grade 6. Shankar Uncle made some incredible dal over the years. It was through him + the yelling my mother doled out to him on occasion (mostly friendly ribbing), that I learned how many kinds of dal there were. Dal fry, jalfrezi, tadka, and many more. Honestly, can’t remember – haven’t remembered the difference. They just taste really good.
We cooked dal on camp tours as well, and people made some phenomenal dal that we ate on our treks. I loved it, and eating it out of our bowls in the cold, dark hills, surrounded by a bonfire, with my schoolmates is a memory that has remained with me since.
Dal was also the first thing that I cooked when I made food for myself over summer. I had hurt my hands and knees in a cycling accident, and I really wanted some food that I could get comfort out of, so I forced myself to cook the dal. It lacked salt – and I’m so grateful my flatmate bore through it with me, but making that food brought some sensibility to what had been a whirlwind in the day.
Nowadays, in my mess, I find myself resorting to dal-chawal as frequently as possible. I feel like I’ve eaten enough orange gravy for a lifetime generally, and my mouth has grown a little tired of the flavour of the other curries we get in the mess. So I’m mixing things up and eating dal, curd, and uppinkai together for most meals, and I’m loving every minute of it. It brings back all of these memories and feelings I have associated with the meal.