Until I went to India, I thought all Indian food was served in twee copper pots, perhaps warmed by a tea light underneath. A genuine Indian restaurant had to feature smoky glass, gold bas-relief pictures of elephants, and salmon-colored napery. Sitar music would jangle while we spooned heavy, creamy curries onto our cold plates, and the saloon-style door to the kitchen would swing open sporadically, revealing a turbaned, mustachioed chef plunging skewers of meat into the tandoor.
Within a few days of arriving in Bangalore, south India, my preconceptions were happily turned on their head. We ate in cafes where the open or nonexistent windows let the sounds and smells of the street dance and waft around our table. A banana leaf was our plate, heaped with rice and simple, honest vegetable dishes. A server would wander from table to table with a large silver bucket and ladle, dispensing aromatic, simple, delicious dal to all who nodded.
South Indian food is very different from its north Indian counterpart. I do enjoy both, but for me, the food of the south has a particular honesty and simplicity. I suppose you could liken the food of the north to French cuisine, with its multiple layers of flavour and intricately built sauces, while southern Indian cuisine resembles that of Italy, relying on a few simple aromatics and good basic produce.
Smell is the most evocative of our senses, and the tannic aroma of fresh curry leaves popping in hot oil transports me back to Bangalore. These glossy green leaves are used in south Indian and Sri Lankan cooking, as well as that of Malaysia and Fiji. You can buy them for around $2 from many Indian grocers here in Footscray and elsewhere. Locally, try Arjuna's, Bharat Traders, or India Impex. They will either be on the counter or in the fridge in small, unlabelled plastic bags. Keep them in the crisper, or in the freezer for long-term storage. I buy fresh to treat myself, but always have a store of dried - these can be found in the dried spices section.
Simple dal with curry leaves
1 c red lentils, a.k.a. masoor dal or Egyptian lentils ("Masoor" is from "Misr", meaning "Egypt" in Arabic)
1 can tomatoes, either chopped or puréed in blender
1/2 tsp turmeric
1 tsp salt
2 Tb oil
1 tsp mustard seeds
1 tsp cumin seeds
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
6 curry leaves (fresh or dried)
Dried chilli flakes, to taste
Wash dal well in several changes of water. Place in a pot with 1.5 cups water, turmeric and salt. Bring to the boil and simmer until tender, about 20 minutes. You may need to add more water if it starts to dry out.
Heat oil for tempering in a small frying pan. Toss in mustard seeds, cumin seeds, garlic, curry leaves and chilli flakes. Fry for a few seconds then tip into simmering dal.
Cook for 5 more minutes before serving with fresh yoghurt and optional chopped coriander.
Adapted from The Ultimate Dal Cookbook by Mona Verma