India ❀ Toor Dal, Chicken Tikka and Chapatis

INDIA???  I know – I did a bad, bad thing this week.  Don’t worry, I haven’t had a mental meltdown, and I do know that India does not follow Azerbaijan in the culinary alphabet.  But I couldn’t get to a decent fishmonger in time for the Bahamas, and this week also marked exactly 7 years (!) since Joe and I started dating.  So, on the spur of the moment, I decided to cook him his absolute favourite cuisine on the planet, which happens to be Indian.  So I do hope you’ll forgive this slight derailment – at least it’s for a good cause, eh?  To make up for it, I’ve cooked you an Indian trifecta:  yellow lentil dal, chicken tikka and the Indian flatbreads known as chapatis.  Pull up a chair and dig in…

Now, India’s a very difficult country to cover in a week, so I’ll probably tackle it again when ‘I’ comes around.  Astute and well-travelled readers will notice that I’ve stuck to North Indian, Punjabi-influenced cuisine with this post, saving the lighter, coconutty dishes of the South and the mustard-scented seafood specialities of the West for later.  North Indian and especially Punjabi cuisine relies heavily on wheat, so all kinds of breads are common.  In addition, it’s famous for using a tandoor oven to barbecue meat and bread at high temperatures.  Apparently, tandoors are not just a method of cooking, but an important glue for the social fabric:

In rural Punjab, the community Tandoor, dug in the ground and coal fired (now electric fire is also in vogue), is a meeting place, just like the village well, for the women folk, who bring the kneaded Atta (dough) and sometimes marinated meats to have them cooked while chit-chatting.

Finally, the food in this part of India is very hearty, robust and often quite meaty.  Here’s what one entertaining description has to say:

Punjabis are known to be fond of nutritious food and most of their delicacies are rich in flavor as well as wholesome. Most of the people in Punjab are farmers who toil hard on their farms. To compensate for the calories they burn every day, such a nutritious food is a must.

In typical fashion, this Sunday thus involved me eating like a labourer without expending any of the colories by working in the fields.  Where are the ploughs and oxen when you need them?

I’ve eaten all three of today’s dishes many times, but never straight from my own kitchen.  Dal, a creamy porridge or soup made with dried pulses such as peas, beans or lentils, is the supreme Indian comfort food and staple.  There are numerous variations, but I chose yellow lentil, or toor dal, on this occasion.  I’ve become quite a dab hand at dal made with darker lentils, and I’ve always wanted to try making the cheery, sunflower yellow kind.  Isn’t it pretty?  Also, I couldn’t wait to try a new dal trick I’d heard about – the tarka.  This is a spiced, infused oil or butter added to the dal at the very end of the cooking process, and is apparently the piece de resistance when it comes to cooking dal.

Chapatis were another no-brainer; these pliable and hearty tandoor-cooked flatbreads are another staple of Indian cuisine, particularly in the North.  Together, dal and chapatis are often said to be to Indians what bread and butter is to an Englishman – cheap, cheerful and found absolutely everywhere.

Finally, chicken tikka, small, boneless pieces of chicken marinated in heavily spiced yoghurt and charred in an oven.  This is one of those dishes I think most of us just don’t dream of making at home, no matter how many times we’ve ordered it in our local Indian or Pakistani restaurants. This is partially because we aren’t lucky enough to have smoking-hot tandoors at home.  For me, though, it’s also been because chicken tikka (and its boned, larger version, tandoori chicken) is usually such a lurid, bright red/orange that it’s always scared me a little.  Nothing in my kitchen is that colour!!  And, as it turns out, while chicken tikka and tandoori chicken ideally get their hue from scarlet annato berries, modern versions often just use food colouring.  Ah, that explains it.  I decided to try it without, relying instead, as some do, on tomato paste, paprika and turmeric to add vibrancy to the dish.

What Did I Need?

For the chicken tikka (this needs to marinated overnight so make sure you leave enough time!):

  • 4 chicken breast fillets, cut into 3 cm cubes
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • the juice of half a lemon
  • half a cup of yoghurt
  • half a cup of buttermilk (if you have none, you can substitute with yoghurt and leave out the lemon juice)
  • 1/2 medium onion, peeled and quartered
  • 2 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 3 cm cube fresh ginger (or a teaspoon dried)
  • 1 tsp cayenne pepper
  • 2 tsp garam masala (a mixture of ground cardomom, cumin, cloves, black peppercorns, cinnamon and nutmeg)
  • 2 tbsp of tomato puree
  • 1 tbsp of turmeric
  • 1 tbsp of mild paprika

For the dal, I used a modified version of this recipe (I’ve always been a big fan of Felicity Cloake’s “Cook the Perfect” series in The Guardian:

  • 400g toor dal (split yellow lentils)
  • 3 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
  • 4cm piece of root ginger, peeled and cut into 4 (or a teaspoon dried ginger)
  • 1 tbsp turmeric
  • 1 tbsp sunflower oil
  • 1 tbsp butter
  • 2 shallots, finely sliced
  • 1 tbsp cumin seeds
  • 1 tsp coriander seeds
  • 2 tsp cayenne pepper
  • Fresh coriander, chopped to serve

For the chapatis, I followed this useful recipe and guide.  I used milk rather than water to make them softer, as suggested in the recipe.

How Did I Do It?

For the chicken tikka;

  1. Place all the ingredient except the chicken, in a bowl and puree until smooth. Taste and adjust seasoning to taste and to get the desired colour.
  2. Add the chicken cubes and stir to coat. Marinate for at least five hours, and preferably overnight.
  3. Thread the chicken onto a skewer and put on a baking tin.
  4. Bake the chicken in an oven that is as hot as you can get it on the lowest rack. Turn after five minutes or when slightly charred. When lightly charred on both sides, remove from the oven. Try not to leave in the oven too long, so that the chicken stays juicy.
  5. Serve as a starter with sliced onions and tomatoes or with rice as a main course.

For the dal;

1. Wash the dal until the water runs clear, then drain and put in a large pot and cover with 2 litres of cold water. Bring to the boil and skim off any foam that rises to the surface.

2. Add the garlic, ginger, turmeric and cayenne pepper to the pan with a pinch of salt, turn down the heat, cover, leaving the lid slightly ajar, and simmer very gently for about 1½ hours, stirring occasionally, until the dal is creamy.

3. Add boiling water or reduce the dal further to achieve your preferred consistency if necessary, and add salt to taste.

4. Meanwhile, heat the oil in a frying pan over a medium high heat and add the shallots. Stir until golden and beginning to crisp, then add the cumin and coriander seeds and cook for a couple of minutes.  Add the butter and stir the mixture until the butter is melted and foaming.  Spoon this mixture over the dal, in bowls, and top with chopped coriander. Serve with plain rice, chapatis or other flatbreads.

For the chapatis;

See the previous recipe link. Keeping your chapatis soft is a battle you’ll be fighting constantly. A few further tips on how to avoid hard chapatis: make sure not to leave them in the pan for too long, otherwise they dry out. Also, when chapatis are finished cooking, pile them up and cover them so that the steam softens them.

So How Did It Taste?

Super yummy. Joe especially loved it. He was practically jumping up and down in his seat with excitement while we were eating, and he kept exclaiming:

There are so many flavours! I can just taste so many different spices.

So, Joe rated it one of the best dishes I’ve cooked so far for the blog, and he especially liked the chicken.

My assessment? I really enjoyed it too, but my favourite was the soupy, creamy dal. I’ll definitely never make dal without a tarka ever again. The morsel of fragrant oil and onions sizzles as it hits the dal and adds a dimension of flavour you wouldn’t get if you’d simmered the ingredients with the lentils. This dish also taught me that I don’t have to add garam masala to every Indian dish I cook. Sometimes, just letting three or four spices be the star of the dish creates a new and more subtle combination of flavours. Many people include mustard seeds in their dal, so that’s something I’ll try next time when I can get my hands on mustard seeds. But, overall, this fragrant, rich lentil soup is definitely something I can see myself eating over and over again.

I have to admit that, despite the efforts described above, my chapatis were still chewier than I wanted. I’ll have to work on that, perhaps by experimenting with different flours. In the meantime, I’m not yet marriage material for a traditional Indian household. As the exasperated  matriarch in the movie Bend it like Beckham scolds her daughter:

What family would want a daughter-in-law who can run around kicking football all day but can’t make chapatis?

The chicken tikka was also a little drier than I’d hoped, which I’ll remedy next time by taking it out of the oven sooner, even if it’s not as blackened as it usually comes out of the tandoor.  But the dish was still lovely: piquant from the yoghurt, rich with complex spices and a lovely deep orange colour. And all without food colouring! Oh, and it was great cold the next day for leftovers too. All in all, an Indian feast fit for a long, lazy Sunday lunch.

After our brief detour into the middle of the alphabet, I’ll be back starting off the ‘B’s next week. Stay tuned for Bahamian seafood with rice and peas!

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9 thoughts on “India ❀ Toor Dal, Chicken Tikka and Chapatis

  1. shaanthz says:

    Oh wow….you did great for a non-Indian! Better than many North Indians I know, who buy frozen chapatis. I’m married to a Punjabi (who doesn’t toil on the farm :)) and know too well about the ‘nutritious food’ …..fresh chapatis and dal tadka are mainstay in my kitchen. I love your idea of walking into every country’s kitchen…..have to follow you.

    • Hi Shaanthz, I’m so glad to hear it! It’s always great to hear from people who are very familiar with the cuisine in question. You’ve made me feel quite virtuous to bypass the freezer section, although if the option had been open to me I might have been quite weak! How do you get your chapatis soft – which kind of flour do you use?

  2. Paula Fourie says:

    Happy dating anniversary, Elle! 🙂

  3. Carroll says:

    Love Dal! It looks great- and looks like you are having fun with it!

  4. Karla Boza says:

    I love this!
    Please tell me when you write about El Salvador!
    I’m dying to know if you’re going to make pupusas.

    • Thanks Karla – I’m on a hiatus at the moment, but when I get back in the swing of things I’m looking forward to doing El Salvador. Will especially look into doing pupusas – any recommended recipes?

  5. I am a huge dal fan and this looks delicious and a little different from mine. I’ll definitely be trying it.

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