La vita è bella
“It’s your last night here, what would you like to eat, Baba?,” I ask my father.
I know he likes the straccetti alla rughetta at Da Francesco in Piazza del Fico.
“A home-cooked meal. Dal and chawal,” he answers.
On his last night whilst visiting me in Rome, my father wished for me to prepare him a simple Pakistani-Afghan meal of dal, (lentils) and chawal, (Basmati rice). A meal taking him back to his roots. Soft, warm, velvety food. He asked for dal, just like the great Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan had requested of his son, Prince Aurangzeb.
But here is where the similarity between my father and I and Aurangzeb and his father ends.
In a blind quest for power, Aurangzeb imprisoned Shah Jahan for eight years, till his death. Knowing that his father was a gourmand, Aurangzeb callously presented Shah Jahan with a stark choice, giving him the option of selecting but one food type for every meal. Shah Jahan summoned his Royal Khansama (Chef) for advice. He selected dal. It was the most prolific ingredient, cooked in umpteen ways and even used for dessert. Though Shah Jahan did not live happily after, he enjoyed a variety of meals, thereby frustrating the sadistic designs of his son.
No such imprisonment here. Baba was to fly back to his home in Bucharest, Romania the next morning. Though I do wish I could have kept him in Rome for the next 8 years.
Baba’s visits to Rome involved a daily jog in Circus Maximus. Every evening, we’d walk down from my home in San Saba and go round and round the length of the oblong track, at the foot of the Palatine Hills, inhaling the scent of the pine tree canopies above us. Powdered dust flying behind us as we would run farther and farther along the track.
On the very same ground where the chariot wheels must have turned for the entertainment of the Etruscan Kings of Rome.
After these runs, we would reward ourselves with some Roman fare.
Maybe we would head over to a favourite pizzeria, Remo, for a pizza margherita, crispy and paper thin, with a candy-red tomato base. One solitary emerald-green leaf of basil embedded in the oozing mozzarella. With Baba’s Partagás cigar finally lit up, we would walk through the Aventine Hill, towards Circus Maximus, past the famous Bocca della Verita from the film, Roman Holiday, and into the historical centre. Our favourite gelateria, Ciampini, shut at night, we would opt for Giolitti. For me, a scoop of more (blackberry) with a snowball size of panna fresca, (fresh cream) and for Baba, always his favourite, pistacchio. No panna fresca, per favore.
Other nights we would have some clotted-cream-like burrata cheese at an enoteca, Cul de Sac. As a frequent customer, the off-the-menu item of sliced Sicilian tomatoes (pachini) would arrive, drenched in jade-green olive oil with some crusty bread on the side. Then maybe an order of the gamey venison pâté with juniper berries.
On a weekend, we’d start off the day at the Bar Linari in Testaccio, just down the road from my home in San Saba. We’d sit outside in the sunshine as Baba would sip caffè latte from a tall, thin glass, reading the Financial Times and I would catch up on some chiacchiere with the barrista or the lady from the till.
And so our days would go.
Sunrays, coffee, gelato, pasta, small narrow alleys, a new church to be discovered.
All under Rome’s glorious cerulean blue skies.
But on his last night- before a 6 am flight back to Bucharest, he wanted to slump on the sofa, watch Rai Tre and feel like he was home again, in Lahore. After all the lovely Roman meals we had had all week, we wanted to go back to our roots again. With a bowl of mustard-yellow dal, scented with a tarka; a cumin and garlic oil infusion and dotted with confetti of fresh coriander leaves. Over a mound of steaming Basmati rice. Or perhaps scooped up with some pizza bianca in the absence of naan.
Sitting, eating in my flat as the church bells in Piazza Nicoloso da Recco would go off for Sunday evening mass. Later standing on my Juliette balcony, among my coral-red geraniums, looking at Frascati in the distance. Baba’s arm draped over my shoulder. A lovely end to a father-daughter week.
La vita è bella. With a bowl of lentils and rice.
You can also have dal as a soup with some yoghurt drizzled on top…
…and some squirts of lemon.
Shah Jahan photocredit here.
Giolitti photocredit: Tridadvisor.
In this recipe, the ratios are most important. I use a small teacup to prepare mine, you can use the American cups measurement, as long as you use the same proportions. My teacup is approximately 2/3 of an American cup measurement. For my recipe, the ratio of red lentils to moong lentils should always be 3:1, with the salt and cayenne pepper adjusted according to the amount you decide to make.
As cooking times may vary, please remember that this dish is ready when you can no longer distinguish the shape of both lentils. You’ll see an almost alchemy-like process in which the dal becomes a velvety purée.
You can vary the thickness by adding/subtracting water- but it should never be thick and lumpy.
Here is a link which shows photos of both lentils- masoor and moong.
* 1.5 teacup red lentils (masoor or Lens culinaris)
* 1/2 teacup yellow moong lentils (the variety with husk/skin removed), found in Pakistani / Indian grocery stores.
* 1/2 teaspoon salt (adjust to taste)
* pinch turmeric powder (haldi)
* 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
* 1 tablespoon tomato sauce/passata/canned diced tomatoes or 1/4 fresh tomato, chopped, skin removed. (Don’t worry about opening a brand new can for these ingredients, they can be omitted; you won’t be compromising on the flavour of the end result).
* 1 garlic clove
* 6 teacups boiling water, add more for the consistency of your liking
A tarka, (scented oil infusion) is optional, if you want to employ healthy cooking techniques, you can skip it all together. At home, unless entertaining, I skip it.
*2-3 tbsp. sunflower oil (or any other neutral-scented oil, except olive oil)
*1 tsp zeera; cumin seeds
*1 whole garlic clove, sliced very thin and wide
*optional: 1 long, dried red chili (found in Pakistani / Indian grocery stores)
* fresh coriander/cilantro leaves stems and leaves chopped fine.
*Plonk into a medium-sized heavy bottomed pan, (I use a 6 qt stockpot): lentils, salt, haldi, cayenne pepper, garlic clove, tomato sauce and boiling water.
*Place it on a low-medium flame, cover with lid, but not completely, so as to allow some steam to escape, otherwise the lentils will overflow- you don’t want a yellow protein mess on your stovetop.
*Let it simmer for 30 minutes. You will see that the two breeds of lentils will finally become a velvety puree, indistinguishable from each other; this means it is ready. Smoosh the garlic clove with the back of your ladle, it will blend right in.
For the tarka:
Heat the oil in a frying pan, once the oil is hot, add garlic, dried chili pepper and cumin. As soon as the garlic turns a nutty brown, remove from the stove and pour over the lentils. Take care, it may splatter.
Stir and sprinkle with fresh coriander.
*With Basmati rice, (see my recipe here);
*With chapati or naan; or
*As a soup, with some lemon squeezed in with dollops of yoghurt.