Sunday, December 21, 2008

Dal

We went to see Slumdog Millionaire yesterday afternoon and then cooked Indian food for dinner.

The movie: very good. Funny, insightful, great editing, good acting of the main characters from childhood through teenager into young adulthood, and an ending with a Bollywood dance number on a train platform. Lots of views of slums in India, where the main character grows up and fights his way to adulthood and wins the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? (There are several great scenes of the children running, running through twisting streets as they are chased by another angry adult who wants to catch them after they've played a prank.) One of the more striking visuals were the large heaps of garbage in several scenes (I'd seen something similar on a much smaller scale - all of a sudden, on the side of the road, would be a big heap of paper and trash and garbage, and if there's a trash container, it's going to be lying on its side with half the contents spilling out, thanks to a helpful scavenger or maybe a large dog). In the movie, these mountains of garbage are often being picked over by beggars and children, who were carrying oversized bags made of a reinforced plasticized fabric. I saw some young girls walking along one of the more rundown streets that I went by on my way to work in Chennai; now I'm wondering if they had the job of garbage picker.

At the same time, the movie is vibrant and silly and smart. And again, that Bollywood ending: I love musicals, and the sight of several hundred people standing on a train platform doing a synchronized dance is good medicine when the weather is freezing cold and we're in the depths of a Midwestern winter. (Five below zero today. My husband touched the cold screen door with damp hands and stuck.)

Dinner yesterday was a dal of yellow split peas, or moong dal; lemon rice with cashews; and green beans with coconut. My taste buds seem to be very dull since I've come home (today I tried a banana, then a pear, and neither had much taste). My goal was to try to make the food somewhat spicy. I looked at several Indian cookbooks at the library and came home with Indian Home Cooking by Suvir Saran. It's a beautiful book and the recipes sounded more authentic than the Indian cookbook I've owned for several years and found to be fairly bland (my theory is that the author is downplaying spices and heat for an American audience).

But despite adding heaps of cumin seed, curry leaves, cardamon, and mustard seed, everything came out way too, well, blah. I will admit to a fear of green chilies. I have no cooking history with chilies: neither Jewish food nor basic American cooking nor Italian food nor even many Thai dishes - which are my mainstays - do much with chili peppers, and when I see the variety at the store - Serrano, and Jalpeno, and those skinny Thai chilies - I have no life experience to tell me which one is hottest, or how many I should add to a dish to get a little heat but not a mouth burning result. I did add a dried red pepper, sort of a little hat-shaped pepper which the cook in India used and I found in the Indian section of my green grocer, to the lemon rice. But I wimped out on the call for fresh green chili in the dal. Oddly, all three dishes called for a similar list of spices: mustard seed, yellow split peas, cumin, cardamon, and turmeric in all three. And wanting to have some variety in the end result, I decided to test spicing up the rice and leaving the other two dishes less hot.

Next time, I'll try jumping into the deep end and add the chilies. And for the dal, I'm going to saute the onion, garlic and ginger before adding the spices, instead of waiting until the end and introducing what I think of as the foundations of a dish at the very last moment as a flavoring oil. And instead of water with the dal, maybe stock. And more spices, and maybe fresher ones, too, if I take a ride to Evanston and the spice store. And I'm still looking for an Indian cookbook.

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