Mah ki dal / Dal Maharani / Kali Dal


Lunch preparation during weekends is one big event in my house - not that I cook an elaborate meal every time - because the kids know that they just have to needle me a bit to get me going with tales associated with the dish! The first time I make any dish is hence, a mix of flavors in the wok or the oven, while they learn more about the history of the dish as I know it, where I discovered it, why I love it, what I associate it with, and the various versions I have had. In doing so I have also seen that this is another area where I completely take after my Mother. She too would tell us similar tales, and introductions as she podded pine nuts for us as we soaked up the warm winter sun in the backyard, or made porulvilanga urundais when we sisters were kids.

I make a different version of the same dish each time to let my kids decide their favourite, and in turn they draw their own associations and come up with their versions. The first connection generally has to do with the version they had at my Mother's place or at the houses of one of my sisters-in-law. Naturally, I need to update and better my cooking if I need to figure in the list! Many times the food discussion ends up in me reading a story or sometimes it leads to movie references too! What starts as a discussion becomes an exchange of ideas with Jr.H suggesting some spicy additions and Jr.P deducting some of the spices that go in.

Mah ki dal is one such dish that evokes memories, tales and emotions. My love for rajma/mah ki dal began early in life. My Mother learned it as a young mother of two little children, at the age of 21. She was from a typical conservative South Indian family, and her only pleasure trips to North before her wedding had been to Delhi. Back then no one ever ate out as it was considered an expensive option. Later, married to my Father, she toured all over India learning and enjoying the culinary escapades and the diverse variety the Country has to offer! Her kitchen triumphs started with the local cooks teaching her their signature dishes. Mother learned to make 'mah ki dal', from one of the cooks during one such North Indian tryst, after which the dish found her favor and lent its aroma every month to willing diners - me, sisters and Daddy!

Later when we shifted to the South, I remember how my friends would dig into my lunch box on days I carried this delicacy. North Indian dishes were still not widely available in the South during the late 90s. What the hotels offered was more a South Indian concoction of a North Indian dish which would be tasty sometimes but not for us who had had the real thing. I think the culinary revolution happened in recent times. Bangalore even boasts of hotels that serve genuine North Indian delicacies prepared the traditional way!

When I started my kitchen odyssey I chose to cook a 'dal maharani' to impress my in-laws. It was a pleasant surprise when I found that my In-laws had never used rajma or mah (saboot urad dal) before. Needless to say, the first time I made it, the dal captured their attention and guaranteed its stay in their kitchen. This is one of those dishes I use even now to get my way with my husband or kids after - a creamy mah ki dal assures that 'love' prevails:). I am sure every family has a signature dish of this kind! What is yours? Regarding the flavors of rajma and mah ki dal, I have only one statement to add - "Aakhir, tum iske jadoo se bachke kahan jaooge, Jaani?"

Last week, on V'day, Jr.H saw me soaking saboot urad, rajma and small chowli beans, and though she knew what I was doing, she asked me, "Why do you have that satisfied look on your face whenever you make mah ki dal?" I dove into the subject headlong! Jr.H's association of the dish has shifted considerably from 'the taste' to 'the tale' of late. She loves my Mum's version and tells me that my cooking is very different from hers (my Mothers), and often asks me why mine is different. I tell her that she will realize it as she grows that her palate will be used to more tastes than mine, and slowly she will discover her own favorite ways of cooking - the ones that should be explored and not restrained. What was handed over to me by my Mother as a simple tasty dish has gathered new flavors and twists, today's being the one I had at that dhaba at Bhuntar.....

Remember the trek I mentioned some posts back where I had an architect and an artist for company and we missed the last bus to the base camp? The tale of today's 'Mah ki dal' is the next chapter to that adventure........ Having missed the last bus, and having trekked another 10kms., we were tired out and refreshed ourselves with tasty, juicy strawberries and cherries which grow abundantly in Himachal. Next we visited a few more local architectural beauties with R (the artist) getting into a long discussion with one of the priests to try and halt the modernisation of an old temple. You will be surprised to know that in these parts of Himachal Pradesh the character most worshipped is 'Duryodhan' from Mahabharata! I have forgotten the local tales but on my next trek I promise I will find out the entire story and let you know about it. Meanwhile, R did not succeed much but we managed to kill time and gained some knowledge along the way! We then took the last bus that would take us closer to our base camp, if not to it. This bus dropped us off at a small village - 'Bhuntar'. Though small in size, Bhuntar is a common junction for changing buses to major towns in Himachal Pradesh. So if you are anywhere near Bhuntar you can go to both Kullu as well as Kasol by bus. By the time we reached there it was close to nine and we were dead tired thanks to our rucksacks which seemed to have grown mysteriously heavier. T (the architect), and I flopped next to a few foreign tourists who had decided to spend the night on the platform! We weren't that adventurous either. R went in search of a decent but cheap place as none of us had much cash on us, and I had left my whole kit in the base camp! After half an hour R returned having found a decent place that had a geyser and a neat, clean but small room. We refreshed and started out in search of food. Thankfully one dhaba was open with only the owner and one last hand who were both cleaning up. Looking at our worn out selves, the owner was kind enough to immediately make huge, thick, buttery aloo parathas and serve it with the left over 'mah ki dal'. This must be the tastiest version I have had till date, and today's recipe just proves every bit of what I say here. The dhaba being a small outlet, the 'mah ki dal' offered was every bit rustic. The creamy gravy was not because of dollops of butter, or thick yogurt added usually in hotels, but because of the slow cooking that the lentils were subjected to, and in doing so the fats were almost eliminated from the cooking yet giving a wholesome tasty version. Of course, the fats in the dal were amply made up for in the parathas and the thick lassi we were served:)! The food was so tasty that we had a paratha each with the dal the next day too before we set off towards the camp!

Today's dish has many flavors and many versions. Do try this - I am sure you will not regret it at all. The dish has a touch of South (the 1/4tsp. bisibelebath podi), the nutrition of North (the beans), and is full of local memories - the Bhuntar adventure for me, and their Granny's rajma for Jr.H and Jr.P. For P, my other half, it is a way to his heart!

(Serves 5 hearty eaters)


Kashmiri Rajma (Small more flavorful variety) / Kidney beans - 1 cup
Saboot Urad / Whole black gram - 1+1/2 cup
Chana dal / Gram dal - About 2 tbsps.
(I did not have chana dal)
Matki or chowli / Black eyed peas - 1/2 cup
(This is my addition - generally not used but adds a lots of creaminess)
[Soak the above together overnight, and pressure cook upto three whistles alongwith the ingredients at B below. Let simmer very slow fire till the black bean bursts and the lentils become soft and creamy - I cooked for nearly 40minutes! - Do not add salt while cooking.]

Oil (Sunflower) - 1tbsp.
Cinnamon - 2 sticks
(I love the flavor so am a little generous too)
Bay leaves - 2
Cloves - 2
Garlic (chopped fine) - 2 cloves (more if you like the flavor)
Onions - 2 small or 1 big (chopped very fine but not ground or minced)
Whole dry red chillies - 2 (more if you are fine with it)

Onions - 2 (sliced thin)
Tomato puree - 1 tbsp. only
Fresh coriander powder - 1 tsp.
Fresh jeera powder - 1 tsp.
Amchoor - a pinch
Hing - a generous pinch
Jeera - 1 tbsp.
Ginger - 1 tbsp. (Cut into thin matchsticks)
Curry leaves - 1 sprig or 4 to 5 leaves.
Chilli powder - to taste
Bisi bele bath powder - 1/4 tsp.
(surprisingly I find that this actually brings out the taste the rustic way though it is not something that people add in the genuine preparation. Completely optional but do give it a try!)
turmeric powder - 1/4 tsp.
Salt - To taste
Oil - 1tbsp. + 1 tsp.

Cook the beans as mentioned above and set aside.
While the beans cook get on with the seasoning.
Mix all the powders in C together in about 1/4 cup water.
Heat 1tbsp. oil in a wide heavy wok and add half the ginger sticks followed by sliced onions. Fry till pink and add the spiced water. Simmer for a minute and add the cooked dal.
Add the tomato puree and pour more water so that you have a creamy sauce but not one that is too thick, as this dal becomes thick with time. The sauce should coat the back of a spoon like chocolate sauce. Add salt to taste. Simmer for a minute and remove.
Prepare the tadka at the time of serving. Heat the reserved oil in a seasoning pan. Add jeera, curry leaves and the rest of the ginger sticks. Allow to crackle and pour over the dal.



Tomato puree is not added generally. But I prefer the mellow tang of tomato to the not so healthy tang of amchoor. You can add whisked thick yogurt instead of tomato but I have recently given up that option.
The last tadka is simply for presentation and fresh flavor. This is not added in the genuine preparation.
Matki is my addition, again not used in the original preparation, but it adds and does not take away anything.
Bisi bele bath powder gives it a flavor I miss if I do not add, so do try it if you can.
This will have a blackish brown color due to the whole blackgram dal - do not throw the water.

Event submission:

If there are any other events that seem appropriate please let me know. It will be a pleasure to join you people there!

Whenever I make mah ki dal (also known as Dal Maharani and Kali Dal), Jr.H and Jr.P make sure that their lunch is packed in bigger tupperware boxes. The reason - the dal is too good, and gets 'forcibly shared' by their friends. They both love to slurp spoonfuls of this dal even after finishing the rice or phulka that usually accompanies the dal. Jr.P prefers his with pulao or jeera rice while Jr.H loves it with anything.

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