The flavors of Gujarati cuisine made a strong impression on me during my first visit. Until I started exploring the Western region of India, which consists of the states of Gujarat, Goa and Maharashtra, I had no idea what to expect. I suspected that the flavors would be very different from the Northern Indian fare one commonly finds in restaurants abroad, but I was unprepared for the diversity of tastes I was to encounter. It all started with a simple dish of dal, lentil soup, which is commonly served with rice towards the end of the meal. It looked unassuming—pale orange with green flecks of cilantro and black mustard seeds, but its sweet and tart flavors, with a delicate touch of toasted coriander and cumin, won me over immediately. It was simple, and yet elegant and memorable.
The use of spices in Indian cooking is a fascinating example of how cooking and perfumery can overlap. Most Indian women have an innate sense of what spices go with what vegetables, and in conservative Hindu households, no food is tasted until it is served (to do so would undermine its purity.) So, the cooks rely on their sense of smell in order to determine the seasoning balance.
Although regional Indian cuisines differ based on locality and also religious beliefs, the Western Indian cooking tradition relies on a smaller palette of spices. Coriander, cumin, mustard seeds, curry leaves, asafetida, turmeric, chili powder, coconut, and sesame seeds provide the main accord, so to speak. The cuisine in Maharashtra is earthy, rustic and bold, particularly noted for their fiery dishes. Goan cuisine has many Portuguese influences, but the rich, vibrant combinations of spices, seafood and pork are unique to this coastal region.
Gujarati cuisine, by contrast, is the most refined of the three, with a very distinctive sweet flavor profile. The floral-caramel note of jaggery, unrefined palm sugar, is woven into a fairly wide spectrum of dishes—from vegetable preparations to lentils and breads. The range of Gujarati vegetarian dishes is elaborate, even judged against the already rich Indian vegetarian tradition. Intricate savory snacks, called farsan, are served mezze style along with dinner and they provide another distinctive feature of the cuisine. To bite into a cumin dotted crispy wafer made from tapioca is an unforgettable experience.
Lentils provide a great canvas for experimenting with different flavors, and in the case of the Gujarati dal recipe that follows, spices can deepen and enrich the simplest of dishes. The main players in this dal are toasted coriander and cumin. If raw cumin has a sweaty pungency, toasted cumin is completely different—woody, smoky, with a hint of walnuts. Coriander also changes when toasted, with its orange-lemon note becoming darker and warmer. A sizzling flourish of spice scented oil is a distinctive Indian trait. It provides a base note for this dal.
Dal gets only better the next day. It can be served Western-style as a soup course, along with some bread and olives. Indian style, it is served over white steamed rice. On a cold evening, it is difficult to envision a more comforting and satisfying fare. For the diet-conscious, it is worth noting that dal is an excellent source of protein hence its special status in Indian vegetarian cuisine.
Gujarati Dal: Lentil Soup with Coriander, Cumin and Peanuts
Serves 4 as first course
1 cup hulled split pink or yellow lentils
1 medium onion, minced
1/2 inch piece of ginger, peeled and minced
1/4c whole peanuts, unsalted, untoasted
1 walnut size lump of tamarind, covered with 1/2c of boiling water, mashed and strained (see note) or 2 tbsp. tamarind concentrate
4 tbsp. finely chopped jaggery (see note) or packed brown sugar
seasoning for lentils: 2tsp toasted coriander powder , 1/2tsp toasted cumin powder, chili powder to taste, 1/4tsp turmeric powder, salt
Sizzling Flourish (tarka, vaghar): 1tbsp peanut oil, 1/2tsp mustard seeds, 1/2tsp cumin seeds, 1/8tsp asafetida (see note)
Cilantro leaves for garnish.
To make toasted coriander and cumin powder: in Gujarati households, this dhania-jeera powder (coriander-cumin) is made in large quantities. The proportions used are 1 part cumin to 4 parts coriander. Roast seeds separately in a dry pan, shaking it time to time till they turn light brown. Cool and grind. Toasted spice powder is a wonderful addition to meat, fish and vegetable dishes (try tossing sliced potatoes with some, along with salt and olive oil before roasting.)
Bring lentils and 6 cups water to a boil. After 30min, add onion, peanuts and ginger. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer for 1.5h, checking time to time to make sure that lentils do not stick to the bottom and scorch. Depending on the age and variety of lentils, it may take even more time for them to soften. Once lentils start to fall apart, they are done. Once lentils are cooked, add the seasonings, sugar and tamarind liquid. The taste should be a nice balance of sweet and tart, so adjust tamarind and sugar to your taste, starting with a small amount. I prefer my dal very tart, but in Gujarat, it has a distinctly sweet taste. The recipe proportion is closer to the traditional version, however feel free to play with seasonings.
Make sizzling flourish, which in Gujarati is called vaghar (in Hindi, tadka). Heat oil in a pan over high heat, add mustard seeds and cumin to hot oil and cover the pan. Once the mustard seeds start popping, reduce the heat to medium and add asafetida. Swirl the oil and immediately add scented oil to the lentils. Mix, adjust salt and chili powder to your taste and simmer for 10min to meld flavors. At any point, if the lentils appear too thick, add more water; the finished dish should be soupy. Garnish with cilantro.
Note on Substitutions:
The beauty of Indian cooking lies in its spontaneity, therefore, if you do not have tamarind or one of the spices, please do not feel constrained by the recipe. You can use lemon juice or chopped tomato instead of tamarind for tartness and you can vary the spices to your taste in the sizzling flourish. Learning from cooks in different parts of India, I have noticed the ease with which they would adapt dishes based on the mood and market offerings. When writing a recipe with its teaspoon and tablespoon measures, this spirit may be difficult to convey, but in many ways, it is an important feature of this diverse and fascinating cuisine.
Tamarind—the pulp of tamarind pods is used widely in the African, Latin American and Asian cuisines. It has a wonderful sweet and tart flavor, with a strong plum-apricot note. It is sold in East Asian, Indian and Latin American shops in forms of either concentrate or large square lumps (my preferred way to buy tamarind, example). To use it, break off as much as needed, cover it with boiling water and let it steep till the fibers soften. Strain. The resulting thick puree can be frozen. Besides providing a delicious tart note in sour dishes, it also makes a delicious drink: dilute further with water, mix it with sugar to taste and add a pinch of salt.
Jaggery—unrefined cane or palm sugar. It is less sweet per weight than white sugar and has a great complexity, ranging from orange blossom flavors to caramel.
Asafetida—gum obtained from a species of Ferula plant. It has a pungent smell when raw, but once cooked, the flavor becomes smooth and savory, reminiscent of garlic or leeks. In Indian stores, it is usually sold in a powder form, which makes it easier to use. If you are unable to find it, you can substitute 1tsp minced garlic in the recipe above. Flavor will be slightly different, but still very delicious.
Photography © Bois de Jasmin.