One of the best surprises about my first trip to London was that the Indian food there was beyond incredible. I thought I’d be traipsing around eating fish and chips for every meal but instead, I was downing fish curries, lentils, paneer and naan at every turn and hoarding samosas from Brick Lane in my bag…for later.
I had eaten Indian food before my trip, but I never really tasted it and appreciated it as I had in London. Something about the careful, extremely detail-oriented preparation there and the bold, bright flavors executed so delicately made me fall in love with the cuisine. Now it’s probably some of my favorite food to eat because of that experience.
I had the great opportunity to head back to London recently to celebrate the New Year and I was so excited to see what kind of Indian food I could try this time. The trip was an amazing whirlwind, and on our last day there, we still hadn’t indulged in any Indian food so after spending the day walking everywhere (our specialty!), we were tired and hungry, and were craving a good last meal in London, so we took the tube farther east than I’d ever been, to the Whitechapel stop, walked down the stairs, and stood on the street wondering what we had gotten ourselves into.
The neighborhood was quiet and a little bit creepy. It was dark but not too late, at around 9PM, and we figured that since we weren’t far from the restaurant, we’d keep going and see what it looked like before deciding whether or not we should go somewhere else.
As we walked up the street to the restaurant, we noticed immediately that it was buzzing wildly with activity and that the quiet streets were a stark contrast from the pandemoniom taking place within. We happily continued inside and, instead of putting our names on the “list,” as we do in NY, we waited on the first come-first served line that they had snaking throughout the restaurant, patiently waiting until we could score a table.
At some point while we were on line, it became clear that this restaurant was BYOB only, which posed a bit of a problem for us mid-twenties kids who neglected to keep any emergency booze on us for moments just like this. Scott decided to go out, find a corner store, and get some beer. Good man. Was I worried he wouldn’t come back? Nah!
When we finally sat down for dinner, we were served a wonderful meal. We started with charred tandoor paneer and vegetables and a healthy amount of pappadums and chutnies (so good) which were followed by the main event, where I enjoyed something new (to me), tarka dal.
Usually, when I’m feeling feisty, I’ll order malai kofta or something a little more exciting than a lentil dish when I’m out for Indian food, but something about tarka dal’s explanation on the menu as being characterized by “pure flavors” intrigued me. I had indulged a lot in the previous few days and pure flavors seemed like exactly what I needed. I was right.
The lentils were thick, soft, and falling apart among the tomatoes, green chilis and onions within the bowl. The dal was spicy, intensely flavored with turmeric and garlic, and had an incredible depth, which was shocking to me, as I stared into the yellow pool of lentils, which seemed so unassuming. I soaked up every ounce of the dal with roti and basmati rice, unable to grasp how good the dish was, vowing to try this again in NY as soon as possible.
So when I got home, I put “make tarka dal” on my bucket cooking list, and set out to try it as soon as I could. Surprisingly, finding a solid, consistent recipe was a little confusing. Many recipes used red lentils. Others used a combination of red lentils and yellow split peas. I consulted one of my good friends, whose family is gujarati, and she confirmed that yellow lentils were used for tarka dal.
This dal, which I adapted a bit to use what I could reasonably find at my grocery store, is almost exactly how I remember it from Tayyabs. It’s soupy with just the right amount of texture from the lentils, which fall apart a bit, and a perfect, earthy combination of spices with a little hit of chili in the background. I topped mine with caramelized onions and a hint of cilantro and served it over some brown basmati rice, and the whole dish felt full and utterly complete. It may not have been exactly like the dal I had in London (perhaps fresh ground spices and a little ghee would remedy that), but it was certainly a great reminder of that last meal we had there before we walked through quiet, sort-of-creepy Whitechapel, took the tube back to pack all of our things, and flew home to New York the next day.
One Year Ago: Tofu with Soba Noodles, Shiitake Mushrooms & Spinach