Simon Majumdar's Dal: "The Recipe that Literally Saved My Life"

13 May, 2021
Generational Recipe Dahl with Simon Majumdar

Photo: Fine Dining Lovers Artwork / iStock / StockFood Courtesy Simon Majumdar

So growing up with that culinary heritage, learned by his mother in Calcutta, but transported back to Rotherham in England, Majumdar's dal was an ever-present dish in his household. When he found himself in crisis, he turned to cooking, and to making the dal of his youth.

“It’s actually the dish that saved my life, literally,” he says. “I was in my apartment in London, getting ready to throw myself off the balcony. My mother had recently died and all kinds of other things were happening in work, I was a book publisher at the time… A Lebanese family in the flat below were cooking and the smell was so amazing I thought that before I kill myself I should go and cook. I always say I was more hungry than suicidal.

“I cooked this dal, and so much of cooking dal is the process and enjoying the process. When my grandmother taught me to make dal, she showed me how to toast the red lentils first and when they become too hot to touch, you decant them and then they are ready to cook with. So I was doing that and I think there was a connection with a continuum.”

There are certain actions that connect us with thousands of years of history and in doing them we connect with the past, with a sense of the context in which we live. Cooking is a manifestation of that cultural self-expression, a learned sense of being that goes back thousands, even hundreds of thousands of years. It’s what draws children to the stove to stir with their mothers, it’s in the fascination of watching a fire burn or a stew simmer.

“I call it ‘LSD’ – Life Saving Dal,” says Majumdar. “It really did save my life, because when I was cooking it I found in this notebook I had written all the things I wanted to do when I turned forty. It included, having my teeth straightened, having a suit made, that kind of thing, and at the bottom I had written ‘go everywhere, eat everything' and that was the beginning of this journey that I’m on now. It really did save my life because cooking it made me stop at that point where I thought I would jump from the balcony of my flat in London.

“When I was hungry and in need of nourishment of body and soul, the dish that I decided to make was dal. I knew it would be like putting on the most comfortable pair of slippers. I knew that making it, the process of making it in would way or another it would save me.”

There as many different recipes for dal as there are families in India, probably billions of them around the world. But for Majumdar, like anyone else, the best is his own family recipe. It’s a red lentil dal that doesn’t require cooking the lentils first (just roasting them), and the process is relatively straight forward. He puts whole chopped lemons in his version, which is something he hasn’t seen any other family do, it’s peculiar to his. Majumdar says that he always has the ingredients for dal in his house, and he can have the dish on the table in about half an hour. That’s not to say that the process is not important. In fact, it is everything.

“I do this dish at demos a lot,” he says. “I make it on stage and serve it to 150 people at a time and the notion is that it’s an act of service. This dish, I sometimes explain it to people as a kind of soup, but it’s really so much more than that. It’s probably the most important thing that I cook. Usually, when I do a demo, I do it on stage, but the kitchen of the hotel, or wherever the demo is being held, will make up the dish to supply a hundred or two hundred people or so. But when I do dal, I insist that I go into the kitchen and make it, no one else. Me and my sous chef will go and cook for the attendees because it’s an act of service. It’s so personal to every Indian family, that it’s an act of service.”

Indians eat food differently, there’s a technique to eating wit your hands, of using naan and roti for dipping and scooping rice with the fingers. It’s a fundamental part of eating this kind of food which engages more of the senses.

“The thing I try to do at demos when eating dal is to get people to use their hands. It can be something quite new for people, say in America, to put down the spoon and eat the naan and roti with their hands, but they get into it very quickly. There’s something very comforting about it when you do it.

“I don’t think anyone makes dal without thinking about what they are doing, it’s a very conscious dish. I’ve made it thousands of times in my life but for me, the process is still as important as eating it. Also serving it to people and seeing them taste it for the first time, it’s wonderful.”

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