Long before turmeric was a trend, it was an integral part of Indian cooking. This is a spice of subtle impact – its role is to stay in the background and create depth on the palate. Turmeric pushes what is sweet and earthy and acidic in the pan to the surface, helping its fellow aromatics to shine.
To wit: dhal. No other dish shows the hidden work of turmeric like this Indian kitchen staple.
Soak some medium to firm lentils in cold water for a few hours or overnight. Gram and chana dhal are my favourites – their textural qualities mean the individual lentil holds its shape slightly once cooked, without requiring the longer cooking time of yellow split peas. For dhal, I always steer clear of moong and red lentils (because they're softer in nature, they tend to produce a gluggier end product). Toor is a good intermediary between a soft and a hard lentil, if I’m short on soaking time.
My soaked lentils are drained and thrown into my pressure cooker (can’t live without it) and then covered with fresh cold water. The amount of water depends on the type of lentil and length of soaking time, but a good rule of thumb is that the water should cover the lentils without drowning them – maybe a centimetre or so above the surface of the lentils.
This is turmeric’s strength – to bolster its sibling spices with a bitterness that lifts, but never overpowers.
Now comes the magic.
Into the pressure cooker, I’ll toss one heaped teaspoon of soft Himalayan pink salt for around 1.5 cups of lentils. With a harder white salt, I’d use a little less – white salt carves a much deeper groove on the tongue. The salt will lift and drive the lentils out of inertia and into a more active playground of flavour.
Next up is a half knuckle of jaggery or gur. An unrefined cane sugar, jaggery has buttery caramel and fudge tones; it is a sugar with depth, texture and a wonderful round flavour, void of one-dimensional sweet spikes.
Turmeric brings the dimension. Not too much. A shy half-teaspoon. The bitterness should be behind the curtain. This is turmeric’s strength – to bolster its sibling spices with a bitterness that lifts, but never overpowers. Our palate constructs taste by recognising contrast. Flavour is friction. As a soft bitter, turmeric plays up the sweetness and the salt, giving those lentils a strong frame to wrap around.
Pressure-cook or slow-cook the spiced lentils to softness.
On their own, the salt and the jaggery would be enough to make a tasty base for dhal. Simplicity itself. But really, the dish deserves a little more. Cumin seed, Kashmiri red chilli, fresh ginger and ground ginger heated in a pan with ghee as the chownk that builds upon turmeric’s foundation. Stir through the cooked dhal and finish with a half teaspoon of garam masala.
Dhal shows that turmeric’s role is to be the structure, not the star. It’s the quiet bitter. The secret strength in all of my Kashmiri pans.
Sarina Kamini is The Spice Mistress - spices tell her their secrets and she shares theirs with you. Don't miss her column, The Spice Mistress, on SBS Food. Keep in touch with in touch with her on Facebook @sarinakamini and Instagram @sarina_kamini.