The Healing Power of Dal-Chawal

5 min Article Learning & Wisdom
Comfort food doesn’t have to be highly processed, elaborately prepared, or overly sweet. In India, simple rice and lentil dishes are the backbone of a healing diet.
The Healing Power of Dal-Chawal

Dal-chawal was my mother’s solution to everything. In her universe there was no problem that couldn’t be fixed by eating a plate of garam-garam (piping hot) lentils and rice.

Tired after school? Have a plate of dal-chawal.

Hurt yourself playing cricket? Here is dal-chawal for you.

Failed a test? Dal-chawal will help you ace it next time.

To her, it was the panacea to all our woes.

Many Indians believe in the healing properties of food. Most of us grow up being fed different preparations for different ailments, in practices that pass on to the next generation. Dal-chawal, varan-bhaat, daal-bhaat, or khichdi – all variations on mixed rice and lentils – falls into this category of healing foods. The combination is a staple in north Indian homes, especially in Uttar Pradesh, the state where I grew up. Yet while the term may be generic, there is nothing standard about dal-chawal.

Dals differ from region to region, as do methods of cooking and ways of eating them. In Bengal, the East Indian state known for its love of rice, ghee-bhaat, or boiled rice with clarified butter, is the cure-all; in Bihar, dahi-chura, or yogurt mixed with flattened rice flakes, is eaten for an upset stomach; in the South Indian states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Andhra Pradesh, curd-rice or thayir sadam is believed to heal gut-related issues; and in Kerala, rice congee is eaten as a cooling food through the summer months.

Beyond this, every home has its specific preference in terms of taste, texture, and consistency. In our family, arhar dal (pigeon pea) was the lentil of choice, and yet its preparation differed from kitchen to kitchen. On my father’s side it was served thick and chunky, with garlic and whole red chile tempered in ghee. My mother’s family meanwhile cooked the dal until it resembled a thin soup and tempered it with cumin and ground red chile in mustard oil.

The rice differed, too. In one half of my family, it was so firm that I often wondered if it was undercooked; in another, so soft that it was almost mushy. I always favored my nani’s soft, almost runny dal-chawal with the smokiness of cumin and slightly overdone red chile shining through. It was light on the palate and stomach, and yet filled with flavor. I clearly remember asking my mother why her dal-chawal didn’t taste like nani’s. She never replied.

Being the eldest daughter-in-law and the keeper of family’s traditions, my mother had adapted to the ways of her husband’s home. While her dal could never be as thick as her mother-in-law’s, it was firmer than her mother’s, yet soft enough to be mashed into the rice. Tempered with a combination of garlic and cumin, whole and powdered chiles, it was, I suppose, her way of bringing together the two halves of our large family on our plates.

Even as my mother’s arhar-dal remained a daily ritual, other dals made a regular appearance at the table. There was chana dal (split chickpea), made with tomato-onion masala and lauki or bottle gourd; sagpaita, a heady mix of urad dal (black gram) and spinach, tempered with copious amounts of garlic; dhuli urad (polished black gram), a chunky, ghee-laden preparation with cloves and peppercorns; and moong (mung or green gram) — both the green and the split yellow version — which we associated with sickness and hated with all our might.

Dal-chawal was, unsurprisingly, the first meal I learnt to cook. I was barely 14 when I cooked dal-rice by myself for the first time, on a summer afternoon after school. The dal was a bit thinner than mother’s, which was excellent because I loved it that way, and the rice was a bit sticky. It was a moment of immense pride. But as I grew up, my fascination with dal-chawal started to wane. After I moved to Delhi, as a young woman eager to leave my small-town bearings behind, I found dal-chawal too emblematic of my past. As I became independent, I had access to fine restaurants with foreign food and hefty bills. My mother’s dal-chawal was now replaced by the risotto and jasmine rice of Delhi’s five-star kitchens.

Dal-chawal returned to me when I became a mother myself. With a demanding full-time job, a house to run, and an infant to care for, my hands were full, and my body weak. The exhausting days and long, sleepless nights meant I needed both comfort and nutrition without the fuss. The answer presented itself in the form of, what else, garam-garam dal-chawal, cooked by mother.

I visited her often with the baby. While earlier she received me and my husband with elaborate meals, maybe now she sensed my need for comfort. The hot bowls of golden dal, spread over soft rice and topped with ghee brought me more relief than any medicine, healing potion, or meditation could. I slept better, gained strength, and recovered more quickly. Just like that, dal-chawal was back in my life.

When it was the baby’s turn to eat, I was certain that I would feed her only home-cooked food. I began experimenting with pureed vegetables, pulsed fruit, stewed apples and whatnot. I tried every recipe for homemade baby food I could find on the internet, but she wouldn’t have any of it. Once again, my mother stepped in. One afternoon, when I was away at work, she fed her little granddaughter the same dal-rice that had been cooked for everyone. The child, who had refused all my fancy offerings, gulped down a full bowl. She continues to do so, though she’s now the same age that I was when first cooked dal-chawal.

Meanwhile, I have become my own mother, offering a plate of garam-garam dal-chawal as the remedy for life’s every toss-up.

PRACTICE is an ongoing series of columns about home cooking as an expression of wellbeing.

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About the Teacher

Anubhuti Krishna

Anubhuti Krishna

Anubhuti Krishna is a writer and editor who is passionate about travelling and eating, and who often swaps flights for trains, and fine dining for street food. When not travelling or eating she can be found writing stories about the two.
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