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Dal: An Answer to the Protein Question
By Kurma Dasa a myriad possibilities

Beef-, fish-, and chicken-lovers take note: There’s a cheaper, tastier, healthier and saintlier way to meet your protein needs.

A vegetarian friend of mine recently told me of a nightmare one-day unscheduled stopover in an Eastern European city “What do you have for vegetarians?” she asked the head waiter in the restaurant of a five-hundred room hotel where he was spending the night. The waiter replied with an astonished look. “We have nothing for vegetarians. I don’t know what you people eat.” He then sauntered to another table, obviously amazed that human beings could exist without meat.

This amazed me since I was of the opinion that the world had at last caught up with the vegetarian ethic. But it seems there are still a few isolated pockets of ignorance.

It wasn’t too long ago, though, that a vegetarian diet, a way of life for millions in India and other Eastern countries, was still considered the eighth wonder of the world. It conjured up images of a monotonous diet with a paucity of form and flavour—boiled green beans and mashed potatoes on an otherwise empty plate, and of bony, slightly wild-eyed young men in sandals.

Nowadays people are coming to realise that those ideas are cultural myths spawned by a society addicted to hamburgers, barbecues, roast beef and medium rare steaks. In truth, a vegetarian diet is anything but strange. There are at least 40 or so kinds of commonly eaten vegetables, 25 kinds of dried peas and beans, dozens of varieties of fruits, nuts, grains and many types of dairy products.

Take dal for instance, the subject of this essay. Dal is the generic name for all members of the dried pea and bean family, and also the name of the dishes made from them. Dal is also the ultimate Indian comfort food. It’s hearty, but not heavy, rich in flavour but light on digestion, the protein-rich staple for millions. Dal is not only delicious but it’s a good source of iron and B vitamins, and an excellent source of vegetable protein.

When you combine dal with a food that has complementary protein, like breads, rice or dairy products, a synergistic reaction occurs, and the usable protein in the dal increases by as much as 40%. In other words, if you eat ¾ cup of dal with 2 cups of rice, you get the protein equivalent of a quarter-kilo steak.

And if you eat dal and rice today instead of steak or hamburger, you won’t have to worry about cholesterol or calories. You won’t be having dinner that was once an innocent steer who suffered in filthy, over-crowded pens, was injected with antibiotics and tranquilisers, and was forced to eat an unnatural diet so he would gain weight quickly and cheaply.

Nor need you concern yourself about the fear of poisons that animals release into their blood at the time of slaughter. Nor about the bacteria from putrefactive decomposition. (They’re not all killed by cooking.) You won’t have to worry about the dozens of diseases and parasites that a meat-bearing animal suffers from, nor how its life was utterly miserable from birth to death. Nor will you pay exorbitant prices for your food. Yet you will receive all the protein your body requires for good health.

There are many dals to choose from. Commonly available here in Perth, for instance, are green and pink lentils, toor dal, chana dal, chickpeas, kidney beans, mung beans, urad dal and yellow and green split peas, to name a few. You can make these into soups (see recipe below), thick puree sauces, stews, gravies, fried savouries        (click here for a great recipe), fresh chutneys, crispy pancakes, sprouted salads, and even sweets - yes, all these from dal!

The knowledgeable cook can select a dal dish to suit any meal, from breakfast to late dinner. You can also serve different dal dishes according to season: warm, hearty dishes for cold winter months, light refreshing dishes for the hot summer.

Here’s a fabulous dal recipe that I introduced on the lunch-time menu at Gopal’s Restaurant at 139 Swanston Street Melbourne over 20 years ago. It’s still on the menu. For many, many more dal recipes, refer to my cookbooks.

Hearty Mung Bean and Tomato Soup

PREPARATION TIME: 10 minutes
COOKING TIME: 45 minutes-1 hour
YIELD: enough for 4 to 6 persons

1 cup whole green mung beans
7¼ cups water
½ teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger
½ teaspoon fresh green chili, minced
2 firm, ripe tomatoes, coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons minced chopped parsley
2 teaspoons brown sugar
1½ teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons mild-tasting olive oil
1½ teaspoons cumin seeds
¼ teaspoon yellow asafetida powder

Wash and drain the mung beans.

Boil the beans, water, turmeric, ginger, and chili over high heat in a heavy 3-litre/quart saucepan. Reduce heat to moderately low. Cover with tight-fitting lid and boil gently for up to 1 hour or until the beans become soft.

Add the tomatoes, parsley, sugar, salt, and lemon juice. Continue to simmer for another 5 minutes.

Heat the olive oil in a small pan until slightly smoking; add the cumin seeds and sauté until they crackle and turn golden brown. Sauté the asafetida momentarily; then add the spices to the soup. Allow the seasonings to soak into the soup for 1-2 minutes. Serve hot.

Want to see more recipes? Click here.

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