I decided on a bit of childhood nostalgia for supper over the weekend. When I was a very little girl and we went to visit family in Malaysia, the biggest treat in the world was a trip with my Grandfather in his Mini Moke, starting before dawn, to inspect the rubber and palm oil plantations. It was magical – the stink of curing rubber, a thrilling terror of snakes in the dark, the burst jackfruit on the plantation floor, and the two of us bumping along jungly roots and mud in what looked for all the world like a set of tent poles in a wheeled orange dinghy.
At the end of his tour of inspection, my Grandfather habitually stopped for breakfast at an Indian coffee shop, and for me, this was the perfect end to an almost unbearably exciting morning. What we ordered was always perfectly simple: two bowls of rice, two roti canai, and a positive lake of delicious dal.
Proust had his Madelines. I have lentils. When I spooned this over my rice at the weekend, I felt as if I was seven again. Eating stuff like this is a fabulous way to keep young. To serve 4-5 people as one of two curries on the table, you’ll need:
250g mung dal (mung lentils, available at Indian supermarkets)
1 large onion
4 cloves garlic
1 piece of ginger, about the length of your thumb
2 cardamom pods
1 star anise
3 dried chillies (I used Malaysian cili padi)
1 teaspoon curry powder (I used Bolst’s)
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 or 2 Thai bird’s eye chillies
2 tablespoons ghee
Start by picking through the lentils for any twigs or stones. Rinse the lentils well in a sieve and soak in cold water while you prepare the base of the curry (about fifteen minutes).
Slice the onion finely and chop the garlic. Wallop the ginger with the side of a cleaver or something heavy, and chop into slices. In a saucepan, fry the onion, garlic, ginger, cloves, cardamom, anise and dried chillies in the ghee until the onion is browning. Add the turmeric and curry powder, and continue to cook for a couple of minutes. Add the drained lentils to the pan with the chopped bird’s eye chillies, and pour over water to cover the lentils by about 3cm. Stir in about a teaspoon of salt.
Simmer the dal gently for between 30 and 45 minutes, until the lentils are soft. Add more water if you prefer a thinner, more sauce-like dal. Serve as one of a selection of curries.