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
Yield: 4 servings
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 1 hour
Total Time: 1 hour, 15 minutes
3 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil, divided
1 large yellow onion, half sliced lengthwise, half diced
1 medium tomato, diced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 jalapeno, seeds removed and minced
1/4 teaspoon mustard seeds
1/2 teaspooon turmeric
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 cup yellow split peas, rinsed and drained
2 cups water
kosher salt, to taste
black pepper, to taste
chopped cilantro, for garnish
1. In a large skillet, heat a tablespoon of oil over medium heat, add the sliced onions and a pinch of salt, and allow the onions to caramelize, stirring occasionally, for 30-45 minutes, until they're very brown but not burnt. Once they're done, set them aside.
2. In a large, heavy bottomed pot, heat 2 teaspoons of olive oil over medium heat. Add the diced onions and a pinch of salt, and cook for 5 minutes, until the onions are translucent. Stir in the tomatoes, garlic and jalapeno and saute for 2-3 minutes, until fragrant. Add the mustard seeds, turmeric and cumin, stirring to combine, and toasting for another minute.
3. Pour the lentils into the pot with the vegetables and cover with the two cups of water. Stir the pot well, bring the lentils to a boil, and then reduce the heat to low, cover the pot, and cook for about an hour, tasting after 45 minutes to test if the lentils are done. Stir occasionally while the lentils are cooking. If you notice that your lentils are too thick, add more water throughout the cooking process.
4. Once the lentils are cooked and the texture is to your liking, add salt and pepper to taste and serve with basmati rice and/or naan, and top with the caramelized onions and cilantro, if using.
Adapted slightly from Chakali