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Thursday, August 7, 2008

The Existential Pleasure of 'Dal Dhokli'

A Monsoon Lunch in Benaulim

So I land in Goa on a wet Monday afternoon. The landscape is lush with the soothing green of paddy fields, the mysterious green of bushes and undergrowth and the dark, foreboding green canopies formed by trees. I make a beeline to the home of Aasif and Gita in Benaulim, a 30-minute drive south of Dabholim airport. Both have been our friends as far back as we can remember. The warmth is a given but Gita knows about my fondness for this Gujarati specialty called ‘dal dhokli.’ We eat Gujarati food every now and then in Delhi but never, for some reason, this wonderful concoction.

In Goa, as we wolf down fish and all manner of creepy crawlies, Gita’s house is like a port in a storm. She serves the tastiest meat and fish dishes including fresh Bombay Duck, flaky and hugely satisfying. Whenever I’m there though, she adds to her table the above-mentioned dish, much to my delight.

‘Dal dhokli’ is pasta served in a lentil sauce. You put a dollop of ghee on it and the world is at your feet. It is one of the few bland dishes in the repertoire of Gujarati cuisine. As a child, I can remember eating it in my grandmother’s house in a steel thali that was raised on one side by a burning coal. This was ostensibly to keep the contents hot. Some spice it up with ‘methi masala’ that is used to make the famous Gujarati ‘methia keri’ (spicy mango) pickle. I never find the need to do that because the bland dal and pasta are good enough for me.

When my friend Vir Sanghvi wrote about Gujarati food in his excellent “Rude Food” feature in Brunch, the Sunday magazine of The Hindustan Times, he either had never eaten ‘dal dhokli’ before (knowing Vir, I doubt that) or ignored it; most likely, he just forgot about this unique dish. It is unique because Gujarati cuisine makes a fetish about sugar and spice. To be sure, there is a sprinkle of sugar in the dal; never mind that, ‘dal dhokli’ does not even have the traditional garnish of cilantro, called ‘kothmir,’ a green sprig that is superior to parsley or mint. This dish is the closest Gujarati food comes to Western cuisine.

I can see eyes rolling at that sentence. “Aha! You poor sod with a colonized mind! You like everything Western, even their food,” a critic might say. Well, actually Western food is great. But I liked ‘dal dhokli’ even as a child, long before I ate my first morsel of Western food. Growing up in a Gujarati household, I drew sustenance from the legions of sweet and spicy dishes that are paraded on every menu. 'Dal dhokli' was the only bland legionnaire in the march past on my table every day. Like the pauses of silence in a great drum solo, the dish is a subtle counterpoint to the Gujarati taste for spicy food, with a little sugar or jaggery added for good measure. Aimed at your heart, kidney, stomach…we have all the shock and awe ingredients in our recipes to, well, shock and awe you. ‘Dal dhokli’ is the respite, a pause from the recurring assault of hot, sweet and sour.

Oh, so now people from the hinterland are shaking their heads. “Our menu too features spices and we reserve sugar for our desserts," a friend might say. Well, of course it does. But you poor dears, your use of spices is just too recent to compare with those of us who hail from coastal India. We facilitated the global trade in spices when you were still eating roots, berries and dairy products with a side order of grilled chicken and mutton. We were global spice traders and the foreigners we dealt with brought with them a cornucopia of foods from the New World such as potatoes, tomatoes and chili peppers. The foreigners you dealt with came bearing swords of conquest and spears of subjugation.

What can I say? Your garam masala and your sauces are like McDonald’s fast food: just throw stuff together. It’s like a store-bought mango pickle compared to my grandmother’s offering: a labor of love and expertise undertaken annually in the summer, the making of ‘methia keri.’ The right amount of methi mixed with the powder of red chili peppers dried in the sun and ground, sometimes to accompaniment of tuneless singing; with intuitive amounts of haldi (turmeric) and hing (asafetida). The composite powder is stuffed into specially picked green mangoes, cut on the quarters and then steeped in oil. To eat the first flush of the pickle, when the mango is still a bit green is to taste nature after it has been to culinary finishing school.

Coming back to ‘dal dhokli,’ its very blandness adds variety to Gujarati cuisine. It is a distant relative of Rajasthani ‘dal baati’ except that ‘baati,’ the flour component, ain’t exactly ‘dhokli.’ It is a dumpling where ‘dhokli’ is pasta. They too add ghee, lots more of it. It is very tasty but the quality we seek is being ethereal. Forced to choose between the two, I would unhesitatingly plump for the Gujarati dish. And no, that’s not a provincial statement…it is an honest choice.

So here I am back in Goa, the land of spices and New World produce. Between the various curries and the chili fries, meat, fowl and fish, I get my fill. The crispy bite of batter fried calamari, the sensuous swallow of hot and sour shrimp curry mixed into coarse red rice and the sumptuous crunch of rava fried fish are enough to make humble table wines taste good. I am suffused with the exciting taste of Goan food and sated by excellent desserts that include jaggery and coconut stuffed pancakes, seductive coconut cakes and honest and upright custard. I can't get enough of the feast. Nevertheless, a couple of bowls of ‘dal dhokli’ in Benaulim add to the enjoyment of fish curry, chicken caffreal, beef chili fry, fried shrimp, calamari, mussels and teesriyos. To my mind, Gita's ‘dal dhokli’ is an added and growing attraction of this lush green enclave on the west coast that serves for us as an escape from the uncivil catastrophe that the rest of India has become.

copyright rajiv desai 2008