How the tadka dal of dhabas on the highways of Bengal became the torka dal of Kolkata/ My recipe for egg torka

The egg torka that I made a couple of afternoons back in Mumbai with
 rotis made by Banu. The cut of onion is typical of dhabas.
The brand of ghee, Jharna, is a favourite of us Bengalis
  • There were a stream of small roadside shops in Kolkata that offered dhaba dishes including tandoori rotis and roomali rotis. One such shop came up at our neighbourhood during my school days and my mother would buy rotis from there
  • A popular dish available there apart from the rotis, was the torka dal or dal tadka, usually made with green moong or black udad dal
  • This post has my recipe for torka dal made with green moong dal and lots of Kolkata food memories 

The story of our daily bread

I remember one evening, late in the 1980s in Kolkata, when my mother came back home from work, clutching a plastic bag with a thonga (paper bag) inside it. The plastic bag looked a bit fogged up. There was a look of relief on her face as she walked in.

She opened the bag and took out soft white rotis which were rather plump and which were snugly nestled into each other. "Tonduri ruti," my mother explained. 

I was in my early teens then and my younger brother was possibly five or six years old. We both looked on in awe.

Turned out that a little shack had come up on the road outside our apartment at Bansdroni in what was then considered Deep South Kolkata. This shop, an illegally constructed one, was located on the narrow pavement on the 'main road.' The 205 No bus turned down the road here to end its trip on our by-lane. Bansdroni was its last stop, or stoppage as they would say in Kolkata.

You couldn't walk on that pavement as it was encroached by many 'small businesses'. There was a cobbler who would often repair our shoes ... 'black shoes', PT keds, Hawaii chappals or barite porar choti and sandals for the streets...this was the 80s in middle class India, we made everything last then till perpetuity. We were not of the use and throw generation. We couldn't afford to be so. 

There was a chire-waala too. He'd sit on the street with a tin box which had compartments containing chire (rice flakes), peanuts, finely chopped red onions and green chillies, dry gram, lime. Sometimes mom would pick up chire bhaaja mixes from him. 

There was a Horinghaata milk stall. We would go there in the morning with a card and empty bottles of milk and get filled bottles home. This card, though precious, was not enough for us and more expensive Mother Dairy milk pouches would be bought too from Tarak da, the young man who would come home to deliver them . The irony was that my brother and I both hated milk and still do.

If you turned down the lane towards our gate, there were the two brothers who ran a roll shop in the evening. I'd go there every evening after school to buy an egg roll, with the money my mom left for me, and then head of the play in the field opposite our house, on which stands an apartment complex today.

There was a bhaater cabin too on the pavement. The menu at this shack was steamed thick rice, veggies, fish, haate kora ruti (chapatis). Bus conductors and rickshaw pullers would eat there in between their beats. My mother would never buy food from there but would sometimes buy the ash from their coal ovens. That was used to wash dishes in our house.

These were the stalls that were there when we moved into our apartment complex in 1984. My mother and the two of us, starting life afresh a year then after my father had passed away. We had stayed with my maternal grandparents in the interim.

The roti shop which came up on the pavement few years later was Godsent for my mother. She used to teach at a college in Howrah and this involved a more than two hour bus ride each way on rickety roads. She'd come home tired and exhausted. She depended on cooks to cook for us. Of course there would be days when the cook would bunk or times when we would not have a cook. My mother would have to cook then. Ordering in was not an option. There were no delivery places around. If there were, they would have still been an indulgence beyond the means of a single parent running the family on a meagre college prof's salary.

There was a slight problem though. We were a family that ate rotis at night. I am not sure if this was a common practise in rice loving bheto Kolkata in the 1980s. My mother had grown up in Delhi and had possibly picked up the practise there. Our family believed that rice at night made you fat and rotis, made with with aata or wheat flour, was better at night. Ironic today given the gluten intolerance camps around us and the keto crusaders too, who see red if you mention aata to them.

While my granny made excellent rotis and luchis and parathas too, my mother sucked at making these. When she was growing up, my mother was urged by her parents to focus on her studies than to shadow my granny in the kitchen. Which is why, years later, she could raise the two of us as a college prof, but she couldn't make us a roti or a luchi or a paratha to save her life.

On days when we didn't have a cook, it would be sliced bread to the rescue and to have on the side with whatever mom cooked. Or else there was 'phyaana baat', rice boiled with eggs, potatoes, ladies' fingers, cauliflower and whatever else was around, with a bit of the phyaan (starch of the rice) left in. the rice A pat of butter and salt would be added to this, the potatoes mashed, and dinner would be ready. Carbs were not looked down upon then.

You would have possibly guessed by now why my mother had a look of relief on her face when she came across the roti shack. Finally she had a source from where she could get us rotis at night. Those were more innocent times when we didn't stress about the fact that the rotis were made with maida or refined flour and not wholewheat flour. They were rotis after all.

From then on, when the cook bunked, mom would send me to the rotis shop where I'd stand clutching the few coins she would give me for the task. It was 50 paisa to a roti I think. I could be wrong though. 

I would watch with awe while the roti maker would put balls of dough into a makeshift tandoor (oven) on the pavement and then use long iron tongs to take them out when they were ready. Seeing the rotis puff up inside the oven was my Netflix in the 80s. As was watching the 'mistiris' who made roomali rotis by placing the rolled out dough on an upturned kadai kept on coal flames. This expedition was even more fun in the winters, when one would be layered up, shivering in the mild Kolkata cold, basking in the glow of the open tandoors on the streets. It never struck us back then that these were fire hazards. 

Here's a funny thing, mistiri is a term used for brick layers and plumbers (koler mistiri) and here, used for the roti chefs too. That was the 80s for you.

Adding some tadka (tempering) to life

The egg torka and roti that we get from a small shop at Netaji Nagar when we go home. The plates are from Iran and are older than my brother and are from a time when melamine was considered to be really posh


There was an interesting turn to our tonduri and roomali ruti (I am using Bengali pronunciations here) story. We discovered that the roti shop also offered a dish to eat along with the rotis. They called it torka dal. It was made with green moong dal. This was not made in our house at that time, though we had more varieties of lentils made at our place than in the average Bengali house. Rajma (kidney beans), lobia (black eyed peas), motor (dried peas) featured on our menu thanks to ma's Delhi roots.

Torka dal evokes memories for many. This is Ashish
of Food Drifter


On days when mom was too tired to shop or cook, and when there was no cook at home, I'd get a few more coins from her to take to the roti shop. This was to get us torka with rotis for dinner. I would place the order at the roadside stall, and then watch as one of the cooks would fire up a sauce pan on the coal oven, add some oil or ghee or possibly Dalda to the pan, and then add some whole cumin seeds and then some finely chopped onions and tomatoes and green chillies. He would then pour in a bland boiled green moong dal mix from a canister and add a mix of powdered spices and chilli powder and salt and mix it all together and then pour the mixture into a bhaar (earthen pot) and seal  it with a piece of newspaper on the top and with a rubber band tying it together and hand it to the cash counter from where it would be handed to me. This was the torka dal and it would have dried up a bit due to the tempering which didn't take more than a few minutes to do. This was street side cooking after all.

On a really special day, mom would give me a few currency notes instead of just coins. This meant that it was a deem (egg) torka day. The same torka process would be followed, but with an egg beaten into it, and the resulting dish would cost more than plain torka dal. They had keema or mince meat torka too on offer but I think would have to come first in class or something to get my mother to buy that, and I don't think I ever got to taste it.

But that egg torka.. and I am saying this without being too emotional or irrational, was lip smacking, more coveted and awe inspiring than anything I had later in life, anywhere in the world, including at Michelin starred restaurants at luxury hotels. 

This was food for the kings in our heads and like a king was how the deem torka ruti dinners made my little brother and me feel.

This is what my mother had to add when she read the post:

‘This shop was called Montu's dokan meaning Montu's shop (named after the owner). This is the best tarka I ever had. Sid (my brother - KK) still swears by it. I would quite often watch how his cook made it as it was quite a new dish at that time though I could never replicate it. I think using dalda made all the difference. We really regretted when Montu shut tarka the shop and opened a grocery shop.’

The Dal Tadka becomes Torka Dal


Over to Pritha Sen. This is from a casual Fb chat between us
and at that time was not meant for an article. By the time I decided
to use it, it was 3 am so I took the liberty of pasting it as is

These torka memories came back to me during a Facebook chat which transpired between a food writer who specialises on food history and is now a friend of mine and a superb cook too, Pritha Sen, and me which took place just before I began writing this post. She, coincidentally brought up the topic of torka in our chat as I'd earlier posted a Facebook video on the torka I had cooked. 

Pritha told me that she the term 'torka' came into vogue in Kolkata in the 1980s thanks to the dhaabas in the city and on the highways leaking to the city. The chhilka wale dal (skinned legumes) such as green moong and black udad that these dished offered, were different from dals such as the usual moong, mooshoor and kolai, that tended to prepared in a fairly bland way with a light phoron or spicing in Bengali kitchens back them.

Sensing an opportunity in the Bengali love for non-vegetarian food, Pritha hypothesises and this makes sense to me too, the 'entrepreneurial dhaba owner' (her term) began adding non-vegetarian elements such as the basic egg or even minced meat or kaleji (liver) as 'tadka' along with ghee to the dal. Tadka means spicing or seasoning or tempering, and that is what the meat or egg and ghee was used to do to the base dal.

That's how the dal tadka of north India became the torka dal of Kolkata concluded Pritha with a flourish ... on Facebook messenger. 

Pritha added that the local Bengalis back then lapped up the more full bodied dals of the dhabas as they were richer in taste the dals that they were used to at home, the addition of a non-vegetarian element was novel too. The Parsi dhansak or Muslim dal gosh, which had meat in dals, were barely known in Kolkata after all. The addition of the ghee and meat tadka along with onion and tomatoes stuff added more body to the basic daal, gave it more bulk and this allowed more bang for the buck  tooas more people could share a plate and fill their tummies. It was a win win situation.

Nikhil Rawal's torka memories 

Black and green


The torka dals that I was used to in the neighbourhood shops of Kolkata were made with green moong dal. However I later saw in places such as Azad Hind Dhaba, which opened a branch at Gachhtala near our house, offering torkas made with black udad dal

Nikhil Rawal, a former market research agency boss of mine and a Gujarati, who fell in love with  the Bengali language, with the city of Kolkata and with a Kolkata girl whom he eventually married, tells me that loved the the torkas at his favourite dhabas such as Modern Dhaba at the corner of Rashbehari Bose and S P Mukherjee Road and one near the erstwhile Globe Cinema at New Market. Some of the torkas that he had would be made with the black udad dal used for making the Punjabi ma ki da,l and not green moong, as he pointed out to me through a comment on an Instagram video that I did on the subject. 

This made me wonder if the green moong dal that I had grown up on, was more a suburban Kolkata thing, and whether the torka in the more Punjabi dhabas in the city were actually made with black udad. 

A parallel which came to mind was that of rolls. The 'original' mutton/ beef rolls of Nizam and of the roll shops of the largely Muslim owned joints in Kolkata had crisper parathas, kebabs with no gravy and were seasoned with just lime juice and masalas along with sliced onions and chillies. These were a revelation to me after the para dokaner moton (sic) rolls that I had grown up in suburban Kolkata which featured chubby and not flaky parathas, with red and yellow shosh (sic) added in and where the mutton rolls had mutton pieces with a thickish gravy as they used kosha mangsho and not kati skewered rolls.

Possibly not, if I go by what Pritha says, viz, "all the dhabas in Bengal, at one time or another, did chhilkawala green moong dal and very few did the kali udad dal."

I would love to know more on this subject so please write to me if you have a point of view on this

I've rarely come across green moong torka dals in Mumbai and our version is different from the green moong usual that you get in Maharashtrian restaurants here. 

Egg torka made by mother from my wife in Gurgaon


My wife had her first taste of torka  in her visit to Kolkata itself which is when we had just got married. Mom would get it from a ruti torka shop at nearby Netaji Nogor. The shops on our pavement, including the makeshift roti stall, have been cleared up you see. Boro mashi, my maternal aunt, makes a killer torka which has my wife in its spell too.

The egg torka that I made a couple of days back

When the torka travelled from Bansdroni to Bandra

I tried to recreated the torka dal with reasonable success back in Mumbai in my early days in the kitchen and K loved it too. On later trips, we found torka masala pouches from brands such as Kookme in Kolkata and brought them back to Mumbai. Using this gave an added flavour bang of Kolkata into our torkas in Mumbai. I taught our cook, Banu, to make torka dal but this is one dish that she hasn't really got the hang of and she turns out bland and insipid green moong dals.

A couple of afternoon back, I decided to take matters in my own hands. I requested Banu to boil some green moong dal with a touch of salt in the pressure cooker. I stepped out and went to the local grocer and bought a pack of kasuri methi. Years back I'd seen my mother add this to torkas that she'd make at home.

I came back home, fired up the gas burner and made a torka on it, while Banu cooked methi bhaaji at the adjacent burner. I decided to crank up the amp a bit and made an egg torka and not just the plain one.

I had the egg for lunch. With fresh rotis that Banu made and she makes this very well. The dish sang. K came back  and had the remaining torka for dinner. She concurred. 

I'd landed the dish well and had evidently not lost my touch, and, in the process brought back memories from the streets of Bansdroni in Kolkata to our new kitchen at Bandra in Mumbai.

I am sharing the recipe of how I cook egg torka. Here are some caveats to keep in. I didn't get this recipe from my mother or my Boromashi or from any blog or recipe book or even from any dhaba cook. It is my recreation of the dish. It is based on vague recollections of what I saw cooks do in the roadside dhabas in Kolkata  I don't even remember the taste of the torka there too well to say how they compare. What I can tell you, is that the my version tastes pretty good and you could try giving it a shot. Plus there are no 'secret masalas here'. All stuff from the local grocer.

My egg torka recipe


Ingredients:

100 g or half a tea cup (for 2) of green moong dal, pre-soaked and then boiled in 3 to  cups of water with a bit of salt, 1/2 a teaspoon each of kasuri methi and cumin seeds, 1/2 an onion, 1/2 a tomato, 1/2 a teaspoon of finely chopped ginger and garlic, 1 egg, 1 tablespoon ghee, 1 teaspoon cumin powder (I like the taste, not always used in traditional Bengali kitchens), 1/2 a teaspoon each of red chilli, garam masala and coriander powder and 1/4 teaspoon sugar.

Cook


Fry kasuri methi and whole jeera in ghee

Add finely chopped onions and then ginger and garlic

Add a finely chopped tomato

Add an egg

Beat the egg

scramble it

Add the pre-boiled green moong dal

Add spices - chilli, coriander, cumin, sugar and salt if needed

Let it boil till it thickens

Add some ghee and green chillies at the finish


Step 1: Boil, ideally pre-soaked, green moong dal in pressure cooker with water and bit of salt. Around 6 to 7 whistles with another 15 minutes on simmer should do but see what works in your cooker.

Step 2: Torka

  1. Add some ghee to the pan. You can also use vegetable oil. 1/2 a teaspoon should do
  2. Put in some whole cumin seeds and dried kasuri methi leaves
  3. Next add some finely chopped ginger and garlic, 1/2 a teaspoon totally
  4. Add half a finely chopped onion and let it cook till a bit translucent but not browned. Dhaba cooking is all about quick cooking and they wouldn't have time to brown the onions. You can add some slit green chillies too if you can handle the heat
  5. Add some finely chopped tomatoes
  6. Stir and push everything in the pan to a side and then break an egg in the pan and then beat it till it forms a tight scramble. Then integrate the spices into it. My mother makes an omelette separately, shreds it and adds it at the end. I've tried an 'egg drop' version of adding egg after you add the dal but that's a bad idea. You can also add minced meat or chicken liver here. Or add  nothing at all and keep it vegetarian. Do not add ghee and it becomes vegan too
  7. Add in the boiled the dal and then the spices. This is what I use for 2 people: 1 teaspoon cumin powder (I like the taste, not always used in traditional Bengali kitchens), 1/2 a teaspoon each of red chilli, garam masala and coriander powder and 1/4 teaspoon sugar. You might need to add a little more salt. You could also add the same spices to the onion and tomato mix before you add the dal. That would add more flavour but this way I feel the taste of the green moong is at the forefront.
  8. Let the green moong dal come to a boil and then let it simmer on a low flame and with the surface of the pan covered for about ten minute or so and your dal is done. The texture, as blogger Anindya S Basu concurs, should be thickish or ghono. 
  9. Add a touch of ghee at the end, half a teaspoon would do. I like to use Jharna cow milk ghee which my friends from Kolkata get me when my stock gets over.
Torka dal is best paired with freshly made rotis and quartered onion bulbs in deference to the dhabas of Kolkata. 


Do check out this iPhone video that I posted on the torka which generated a lot of memories: 



Torka dal is best paired with freshly made rotis and
 quartered onion bulbs in deference to the dhabas of Kolkata. 







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