Embracing deliciousness is an Aussie tradition. Next up? Dahl. The takeover is coming.
By
Sarina Lewis

17 Jul 2017 - 11:33 AM  UPDATED 18 Jul 2017 - 9:49 AM

When I was growing up I held the record for most tacos eaten at a single setting. I was 14-years-old, weighed maybe 45 kilograms dripping wet and could comfortably scarf 10 of those babies fully loaded in a single sitting.

Among my friends, as far as I know, my record still stands.

But what’s more interesting to me than my undefeated taco record is that a dish so unrelated to Anglo-Australian culinary culture has been known in the majority of Australian homes for the better part of 20 years.

Courtesy of Old El Paso and our love for crunchy tacos, we as a nation have jointly turned this Aussie version of a signature Mexican dish in to a non-denominational culinary staple. Which is to say, to have tacos for dinner is as natural a decision as it is to cook roast lamb. Or spaghetti: another classic that’s broken free of its cultural origins to become as ‘Strayan as barbecued snags.

So stay with me, here, when I tell you that the next dish looking to call Australia home is the humble Indian staple… dahl (or dal). 

When I was growing up my Australian grandmother’s kitchen notebook – like many of her generation – contained a recipe for sausage, banana and sultana curry. That her daughter (my Mum) would grow up to marry an Indian and learn to wield spice like a goddess is, if not an irony, then at least a bloody humorous twist in the tale.

But it’s also telling of where dahl in Australia is heading – out of exoticism and in to those now-updated kitchen notebooks.

“I think people are getting more educated on how to use spices,” muses Adam D’Sylva, the master chef behind Melbourne’s Tonka, a restaurant renowned for its almost one-of-a-kind approach to cooking modern Indian from Australia’s best produce, and another of the city's hottest eateries, Coda.  “People are excited, their tastebuds are excited by the chillies and the spices, by the aromatics of Asia in general.”

Chef chats: Adam D’Sylva on cooking Indian
In his 'ghee-free' kitchen at Melbourne restaurant Tonka, Adam D’Sylva is changing perceptions of Indian food, one butter chicken at a time.

Dahl is not only a simple playground in which to experiment with these new flavours, but also an accessible one; the base of lentils makes it familiar for those used to slow-cooking winter soups while dahl’s light spicing makes it kid-friendly – a big determinant if a dish is to go truly viral.

“We don’t put that much spice in our dahl,” D’Sylva echoes. “There might be mustard seeds and Kashmiri chilli and ginger and garlic.”

The reasons our kitchen notebooks are all tuning to this particular dahl update owes to a cultural and culinary confluence of events.

On the one hand we have the rise and rise of gut health awareness and knowledge of the important part fibrous proteins such as lentils play in maintaining a vibrant gut ecosystem, combining with an explosion of sexy clean eating advocates for whom dahl is a new darling.

And on the other? An increasing population of permanently migrating Indians meeting head-to-head with a nation of eaters who are always curious to take on whatever delicious new taste is on offer.

This comforting bowl of dahl bowl is topped with aromatic spiced caramelised onions.  

 

Dahl is the number one recipe I get asked to translate. It is the dish non-Indians within my circle feel most comfortable taking on, in the same way that we mightn’t all tackle homemade ravioli but few of us non-Italians shy from the task of piecing together a lasagne.

In each culture there will be at least one dish that transcends cultural boundaries partly because it is so delicious, but also because it feels simple – we can cook it comfortably even while existing on the cultural outer and still have it turn out beautifully. Think hummus over kibbeh, or spanakopita over twice-cooked octopus.

If you’re not yet on the dahl bandwagon, then you might want to hitch a ride. Not just because "everyone" else is cooking lentils into soupy, spicy submission, but because the results are delicious. And easy. 

Lentils. Ghee. Cumin seed. Fresh ginger. Salt. Kashmiri chilli. Turmeric. Fresh coriander. Add them to your 2017 shopping list. Dahl is the new tacos. Pull out the slow cooker and get cracking.

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Make your own dahl
Creamy red lentil and coconut dahl

This uses a few spices, but once you’ve bought them, this dish becomes a wonderful store-cupboard supper. Garlic is a great source of vitamin C and manganese, as well as minerals including calcium and potassium. Ginger is great for blood circulation and has been used for generations as an anti-inflammatory and cure for nausea.

Goan dahl with golden fried fish

"The hero of this dish is the dahl, made with creamy coconut milk and fresh tomato. The fish plays a supporting role, which makes for an excellent light-on-meat option. You could even ditch the fish altogether, for a humble yet delicious meal." Matthew Evans, For the Love of Meat

Yellow dhal with peas (arhar dhal matar)

This easy, one-pot dish is flavoured with ginger, cumin and turmeric and mildly spiced with Kashmiri chilli.

Dhal

This recipe features toor dal (yellow lentils), tomatoes, Malaysian meat curry powder and sambal oelek, a spicy paste made from chilli, shrimp paste and lemon juice. Serve your dhal with a stack of flaky roti canai for a delicious Malaysian feast.