Photo by Bisma Tirmizi

Finding home in a plate of daal chawal

Daal chawal is an old friend who comes to embrace me after the coldest, longest and hardest days. Here, a family recipe.
Updated Jul 13, 2019 12:18am


Daal jehri nibhey naal. — Punjabi saying

Spiraling, I took the burning laptop off my chest and sat up to face myself in my roommate’s mirror which was, until then, quietly taunting me from across the room. Confronted with my forlorn, crazy-eyed reflection, I immediately burst into tears.

Senior year had been a lot, and writing my thesis was a tortuous journey I could see no end to. Sixteen years of education reached their underwhelming apotheosis, and I had virtually nothing tangible to show for it. I was alone in a country far away from my family, as I had been for the past four years, all for the opportunity to graduate. It was necessary, I had to do it. But in that moment there was no conceivable world in which I could. Burnout had creeped into every atom in my body, it had dropped me in the middle of a scene I didn’t understand. The psychological deterioration was swift; things were getting worse.

I thought of the deeply uncomfortable place I was at in my life. And then my mind went, as minds go, to the times when it had been more comfortable.

Nothing a plate of daal chawal can't fix
Nothing a plate of daal chawal can't fix

I thought of my family, and the ease of being at home with my precious pug. I thought of my favourite meal, which had always provided me with a small cocoon of comfort in times of distress and displacement, of which there have been many. A glimmer of a blubbery mass of hope hurtled toward me all of a sudden. I stopped crying.

There’s something to these kinds of thoughts in the middle of a breakdown. Yes, there was something there: a respite from the drudgery of today, an island in the middle of the sea where one can rest their head until the storm passes. I just need to keep it together for a few more days, I thought.

Hours later, my phone beeped a familiar tune to tell me my father was calling. He could tell that the last few days of university had taken their toll on me, and tried to cheer me up the desi way by asking me what I’d like to eat after my flight landed.

“Please,” I must have sounded quite dejected at that point, pleading, “make daal chawal.”

The mother of all comfort foods

Daal chawal. Where can one begin to explain the peace that our unpretentious go-to has provided us over the course of our lives? Even just as an echo of days past, or a quickly-achievable goal for another day.

Ask one of these traveling businessman types: after a long journey, having eaten at expensive restaurants with important people, what does one crave? Not haughty French food, that’s for sure. Or ask a Pakistani student studying in a foreign country. Hell, ask a student studying in a foreign city.

It is comfort food rivaling aloo gosht, but also more. Not fatty or meaty or junky, but carb-laden enough to hit the spot. There is an element of nostalgia, of course, when the familiar smells of the family’s chosen tarka start wafting out of the kitchen and you can’t help but think of being five years old, coming home from school with a grumbling belly. Memory is embedded in everything we do, in everything we eat, and everything we are, after all.

But there’s more to our beloved daal chawal, I insist! It is, quite clearly, in a league of its own. World-saving, healthy, and reliable, there’s no meal that can boast such functional greatness while still remaining one of the easiest things to make. I even taught the world’s laziest cook, my little brother, how to, without any hiccups. Daal chawal is patient, and it is kind.

Not every daal chawal hits the spot, though. Remember, it’s not one of those meals with a well-known standard recipe. Just like the definition of “Pakistani”, the definition of “daal chawal” varies from household to household, with recipes tweaked to the fancy of each individual cook.


A word on chawal. Some might say that daal steals the show, but it’s only allowed to do so if chawal sets up the show in the first place.


There is no known ideal because the words conjure whatever form you’ve grown up with, the image of the daal chawal that’s had the most effect on your person. Daal is an entire food subcategory, and chawal is a remarkably blank canvas open to the artist’s interpretation. It seems we’ve left it purposely vague.

At my phupo's house, she makes sabut masoor daal, which I have very sophisticatedly dubbed “that brown one”. My cousins would pointedly let me know the days that their mother had made my favourite food — I never mentioned my deeply-held belief that it wasn’t the real daal chawal. (I still ate it like it was, though.) At my university, they’d make all sorts of daal. Chana, moong, maash, you name it. They were an insult to me, leaving me longing for ghar ki daal. (Ate those wholeheartedly, too, though.)

Masoor ki daal. Photo courtesy: Mirchi Tales
Masoor ki daal. Photo courtesy: Mirchi Tales

No, what I wanted was the masoor daal of my childhood, that soupy yellow concoction known to warm me to my sullen core. These pinkish split lentils are a favorite around the subcontinent, so I might be a part of the mainstream, but I don’t care. You food hipsters can have your radical difference, I’m here for what I know and love. And that love undeniably stems from my parents.

The chawal part is not to be neglected

My mother is not a good, or very experienced, cook. She left the cooking to my grandmother while we were growing up, and often ordered out. But even amma knew how to make daal chawal. Oh, her rice is to die for!

To this day, I can always trust that the rice she makes will be perfectly in line with our ancestral tradition of aromatic, svelte kernels standing flawlessly apart from one another. She was, after all, the one who taught me the magic of dum.

A word on chawal. Some might say that daal steals the show, but it’s only allowed to do so if chawal sets up the show in the first place. People eat daal with roti, yes, but daal roti holds an entirely different spot in our collective consciousness.

One cannot fully appreciate the widespread availability of the pristine Basmati rice we enjoy at home until one leaves the subcontinent and finds oneself faced with the tyranny of the boxed “Basmati” rice used to bamboozle the rice amateurs of the world -- namely, white people.


Daal chawal is, to inappropriately quote Horace Mann, “the great equalizer” in a country festering in inequality. Whether they’re rural or urban, rich or poor or a part of the dwindling middle class, young or old, dark or fair, Punjabi or Balochi, if they’re Pakistani they’re probably used to eating daal chawal.


Honestly, what is that stuff? How dare they claim our name to fool their unwitting consumers? Whenever we move to a new country, my family always finds a South Asian store somewhere off the beaten path in order to get the rice we are accustomed to.

The mushy travesty that we must lower ourselves to otherwise just strengthens the case that Pakistan should be taking full advantage of our Basmati export potential, and be teaching the world a thing or two about good chawal, like my mother taught me.

The rice aside, my mom always made the same, simple daal. Masoor daal, boiled with haldi, mirch, salt, and then topped off with a zeera and lassan ka tarka. Simplicity encapsulated. The effortlessness of this recipe is probably why it was the first thing my father learned to make.

In all cases, daal chawal is as humble and forgiving as a food can be
In all cases, daal chawal is as humble and forgiving as a food can be

When we started living with baba, he didn’t know how to cook in the slightest. The burden of three young children to look after is known to change a thing like that. Now, he’s the best cook I know. Rice still isn’t his forte, but it’s fine — I’ve started making that for him.

This one recipe has kept my family connected, even when we’ve been scattered across different continents. A true constant throughout our lives, like mangoes and airports, where it’s not a matter of if, but when.

Daal chawal as Pakistan's national food

The persistence of daal chawal throughout my formative years is something I share with most of Pakistan. As our own (and undeniably superior) mac and cheese, it is a formula for the ages, kindling a belongingness that defies all sorts of boundaries in its homely, starchy nourishment.

It is, to inappropriately quote Horace Mann, “the great equalizer” in a country festering in inequality. Whether they’re rural or urban, rich or poor or a part of the dwindling middle class, young or old, dark or fair, Punjabi or Balochi, if they’re Pakistani they’re probably used to eating daal chawal. Rightly so, because daal chawal is a lovely thing to eat.

You can pair it with anything; it is a foundation upon which you may build your culinary experience according to whatever suits your fancy. Some of my favourite sides are seekh kebabs (obviously), palak, a sausage, or an avocado. Sometimes just achar is enough, providing the perfect pop of tart to complement the mild, easygoing flavor.

You can have it by itself, too, in which case you may pat yourself on the back for having a healthy meal known to help people lose weight. It’s also perfect for when you’re sick.

Truly versatile
Truly versatile

As a notoriously sick child, daal chawal and its ugly cousin khichri rivalled chicken yakhni on the days that my body would reject everything else. In all cases, daal chawal is as humble and forgiving as a food can be.

For the more superficial among us, it may even be too humble. These people choose instead to tout the noble biryani as our national culinary symbol, wealthy in meat and illustrious spices that hark back to the days of Mughal glory, even if meat prices are on the rise and most of the country cannot really afford to make it regularly.

We’ve all met them, those that would write daal chawal off as plain peasant food though it has nourished them throughout their lives and never assaulted their mouths with elaichi. It is not loud or proud like biryani, and so we forget.

We do not fight over its origins with our neighbors — a cursory search will show that the combination of lentils and rice originates in Nepal — not feeling the need to own it. Not that I think these fights are useful, fruitful, or at all sensical. Culture is dynamic, and we can make things our own no matter where they come from, like we did with chai.

If we rigidly stick our feet into the mud and reject everything that came from somewhere else, we’d have nothing left. It’s just that, culturally, we take daal chawal for granted.

I am of the firm belief that the food that characterises our nation should be one that the people of our nation eat every day. It should be the food that mirrors the heterogeneity of the nation. It should be the food that a graduate student somewhere in a gora country can whip up for themselves after a grueling week, when they’re out of money and need a taste of home.

Home is a concept that keeps coming up in my writing, a notion I’ve struggled with throughout my life. Right now I believe it is abstract, and can be broken up into little pieces, some of which we can carry with ourselves. Daal chawal is one of those pieces, for me. No matter which country I move to, who I’m surrounded by, or whatever predicament I find myself in, I know I can always turn to daal chawal. She is an old, sunny friend who comes to embrace me after the coldest, longest, and hardest days. And I’ve found that we can get by with a little help from our friends.

The Rathore Daal Chawal Recipe

This is our family recipe, altered for the smaller family. Double, or triple it as you please.

Yield: 2 servings

Prep time: 10 minutes

Total time: 30 minutes (varies)

Ingredients:

Daal

Red split lentils ½ cup

Water 1 ½ cup

Red chili powder ½ teaspoon

Turmeric ½ teaspoon

Salt to taste

Tarka

Oil 2 tbsp

Garlic 3 cloves (minced)

Cumin 1 tsp

Rice

Basmati rice 1 cup

Water 2 cups

Salt to taste

Instructions:

Soak the rice and the daal, separately, in water for ten minutes.

Drain the daal and put it in a pot with the water, red chili, turmeric, and salt. Boil until there is a thin, watery layer on top of the daal and the consistency is such that the lentils have broken apart. We prefer it soupy, rather than thickened.

While the daal is cooking, start on the rice. Drain the rice and put it in a separate pot with the water and salt. Boil until the water has evaporated, put the heat as low as possible, and then put the lid on top. The tighter, the better. This is the dum period. Leave the lid on for 10-15 minutes, or until your daal is done.

When the daal has reached the desired consistency, turn the stove to the lowest possible simmering heat and start the tarka. For the tarka, put the oil in a pan. Once it’s heated, throw in the cumin. Once that is sufficiently browned and the aroma is distinct, throw in the garlic and fry until it’s golden brown.

Throw the tarka on top of the simmering daal, swirl it around, and put the lid on top of your pot. Let the flavors meld for a bit.

Fluff the rice with a fork. Grab your plate, or bowl, and load up on rice. Then spoon the daal on top. Enjoy!