Digging out comfort from food with the humble dal- chawal mood

Dal-Chawal comfort food

There’s a reason why food is harbouring of life even outside the scope of nutrition. Made of equal parts comfort and indulgence, balanced in its proportionate flavours brought about by sprinklings of nostalgia and dashes of the gourmet, celebrated in happiness and brooding over in sad times, food is the elemental essence through which life continue beyond its physicality. It’s amazingly versatile as well- the same dish can appeal differently to the tastebuds of different nationalities of people, a solitary ingredient can deliver wholly different sensations depending on how it is incorporated within the preparation, and indeed even authentically ethnic and regional delicacies can find global favour in their flavourful seating across the palate, for some as a staple offering of comfort, for others as an indulgent spree they get to enjoy only once in a while. No wonder food is celebrated to such extents that it becomes an essential element of all festivities and is obsessed over by connoisseurs to measures that make them innovate experimental dishes and fusion cuisines, manifesting as a way of life that indeed is more steeped in the essence of what it can be in the ultimate eliciting of the flavours enriching our existence.

Of such balmy tendencies of food that harbour the ability to heal and nurture and not in just the nutritional aspects of it is a certain charm that delivers in the most simplistic assertions of what it can be. Whether it be to cheer you up after a rough day or even to lend you further bliss at the end of a happy occurrence, and even in such pursuits that grant you succour or simultaneously wrap you in warm happiness on a cosy night of the chills that touch not your soul, food can be cathartic in its peculiar comfort- one that enriches you with a sense of fulfilment, of savouring indeed every flavour that life resides in across all its variegated musings. In the prevailing plethora of prospects presented within the Indian parlance of such platefuls of pleasure is a very plebeian indeed charting of comfort but that which transcends readily to strata of food fanciness more esteemed in their being. Because that exactly is what food does, and specially comfort food- delivering the universal scourings of comfort in such generousness that is what elevates them from being mere edibles pertaining to the tastes to being heavenly bites of heartiness fit for the soul.

A forever favorite across the realm of gastronomy across the Indian experience is this simplistic, humble, basic indeed summing up of a meal that comes together in mere twos of its pairing to create up though a measure of appetite humongous enough to find its way to the cravings of the soul. Colloquially enjoyed as dal chawal, this is among the simplest of preparations that you can cook up the way you like. Devoid of the frills of presentation or the fussy demand for accoutrements, dal chawal that translates literally as rice with lentils is as elementary a stemming from the food world as it can be. Much like its name, dal chawal is exactly what it proclaims to be in no pompous fancy nor in epicurean exemplariness. And in all its residence along the alleys of comfort even as it dwells as much in the trail of delectability, this traditional Indian dish, which makes also for a nutritious and wholesome, complete meal in itself might be a classic serving to which even the most ‘adventurous’ of eaters return and re- return in almost religious adherence of a ritual but is in fact emerging of an origin not particularly Indian.

Of origins not very distant though from the Indian mainland but rather rooted somewhere in the hilly perching of its neighbouring country of Nepal, dal chawal is a classic case of the crossover that food has entailed through the ages, courtesy its comforting basis. Ditch such dynamics oft encountered on the delicious domain and one would still be left with more than enough oodles of intrigue to keep you hooked to this enduring legacy of rice with a side of lentils. Perhaps first tried out somewhere along the misty meanderings of the mighty Himalayas, where a steaming bowl of dal poured over a piping hot plate of rice indeed was the elixir that provided respite from the chilly cold up there in the high heavens. It might have been the carbohydrate rich realms of the rice or the tempered zing of the lentil preparation that might have appealed immensely to the weary soul of a worldly being, but what entailed out of this genius indeed trial has been a dish that is among the most iconic of food combinations ever. Not just in Nepal or India, or not even only in Bangladesh and Pakistan or areas in the vicinity but also across the world where rice with lentils has come to assume significance, albeit outside of their servings of comfort. ‘Rice with a side of lentils’, as this basic preparation of dal chawal tends to be has been found to be among the most sustainable of food options that possesses more than enough potential to address the ecological burden and lesser classify the climate change crisis while being adequately nutritious as well.

Coming though to cater to such musings related entirely to the aspects of the culinary, dal chawal or dal bhaat as it is often known indeed is no less than a superfood. That perhaps is the reason why this is the only meal served in and around the Himalayas, even to those enduring the arduous trek up the mighty mountains. A mainstay of Nepali cuisine and no less explored in India as well, with each state having their own unique element that makes it as specific as it is general, the preparation of dal chawal can also be as individualistic. But of course it is the pairing of plain and hot white rice with a serving of dal infused with the most flavorful of spices and herbs, served with pretty basic sides of either some stir fried veggies or some chutney and pickle, papad and salad that is what strikes as our understanding of what comfort feels like in this fanfare of food.

Beyond comfort as well, dal chawal delivers such notions of life that characterise it in essence. Be it the convenience of its preparation or the accessibility of the ingredients, the more than assured choice of taste and the standout flavours that permeate its doing even in considerable subtleness, delivering prominent indeed experiences across the plate that which might not be piquant is not essentially subdued either but ranges rather a decipher of its deliciousness that isn’t unnecessarily overpowering, resting instead in such realisation of taste that washes down over you with every handful you feed yourself with, from which emerges an appreciation not for being the culinary masterpiece that it certainly can claim to be in all humility but instead in its commonplace prejudice that asserts without having to be assertive.

It helps also that this is a dish far more economical than what other even less comforting or staple alternatives can be, satiating the cravings of the masses with as much elan as it adheres to the sometimes simplistic fancies of the elite, by which measure it transcends therefore the unappetising distinction of the divide that eats away into the societal sanity. That perhaps might be too weighted a proposition for a dish as simple as dal chawal to consider but it indeed within such deeper reaches of it from wherein stems its significance even in basicness. Dal chawal is endearing because it is familiar and because it endows us with a satiated feel of the soul that no gourmet combination can ever afford despite all their spectacularity. Also offering prominently evocative feels of nostalgia, encompassing the fondness innately harboured for home cooked food in such times when partaking of meals was a familial affair and not a self dining exercise in rumination, is every basic plate ever of dal chawal from which reminiscences waft as strongly as the whiff of the sarson and curry patta tempered dal, filling not just tummies but also the cravings for the finer things in life. That itself is the magic that makes certain foods more comforting than others and the staple serving of rice and dal evokes more than poignantly this immersive experience in eating and existence, complementing each other in such perfection that you don’t even ever need any other accompaniment to take you through relishing every ounce of warmth dripping from the flowy essence of the dal and imbuing every grain of rice cooked to finesse with its savoury spirit, as they find a combined way to titillate the senses while setting off indeed your taste buds ticking with the impeccable delivery in simplicity. Evoking therefore of feelings that remind one of home even when these might be platters served by the many stalls around the nook or even by high end restaurants as a gourmet meal, as long as comfort is the taste that is aroused by these blissful bites of basic bounty, the essence of dal chawal is served.

Because dal chawal is already more than just any food by its classification as a comfort platter, it’s inevitable therefore that any mention of this dish will usher in explorations of the human senses not in any way related to the deciphering of delicacies. And yet, one might choose to view this epitome of what constitutes the basic of luxury in exclusively food terms and end up equally impressed by its dynamics. With both its star ingredients being core components of the Indian culinary fore in some way or the other, dominating across a melange of preparations that can be sinfully sweet or scrumptiously savoury, balanced or standout, mains or sides, it is no surprise that the conjugal bliss of what can loosely classify as a one pot dish as long as you are concerned from the arena of eating is an eternal favorite. Filling and nutritious in equal measure, catering unbiasedly to the needs of the ailing and the scourings of the healthy, loaded with carbs on one side and rich in proteins on the other, vegetarian and vegan even while offering immense options to emerge as meaty with additions and accompaniments to your fancy, this is a wonder that appeals to all in such diversities that aptly sum the ‘to each his own’ virtue. A ‘virtuous’ food in itself in its dignified essence of feeding, even when such play of adjectives might not be the most evoking of references when it comes to something explored almost exclusively in terms of taste, dal chawal though is a diversion that of course is not as commonplace in its worthiness even when it surely is among the most common of preparations serving respectfully every demand made out of it. In the unassuming air of it rests the appeal of dal chawal- without any quirks to make it curious, this particular serving that isn’t fancy in any way is comforting indeed because of the familiarity in which it dwell. Ever dependable a dish to which you can return to decipher your choice of comfort in, this is that safe haven in the food space that is characterised by nothing in particular yet is more than universal in its every morsel of what entails from a heaven of ultimate bliss.