The lockdown makes one question and change established home kitchen rules. A fresh look at the Kolkata dal torka. Covid Lockdown Journal 34

Dal torka with Annu Grover's parathas and Gujarati mango pickle from Soam

Yesterday: Kolkata

I have been a fan of the torka dal of Kolkata ever since the evening when my mother had asked me to get a bhaar (earthen container) of it, along with rumali rotis from the roti shop that had come up on the pavement next our apartment complex at Kolkata's, Bansdroni. This was in the late 1980s. I was in middle school then. I was fascinated by the way the kaarigors (Bengali pronunciation of the Hindi word karigar/ craftsmen) made the dal. They took a portion of cooked green moong dal out of a vessel and put it on a much weathered aluminium saucepan, placed on a rickety paraffin  stove and on which they tossed finely chopped onions, ginger garlic, tomato and spices in dalda first, then mixed it all together with the dal before transferring the contents into the bhaar. They then put a torn piece of newspaper on the top of the bhaar and sealed it with the rubber band. My mother would store the rubber band and later use it to seal the used plastic milk pouches in which she would store raw fish in the deep fridge. Nothing was wasted in an 80s home in India.

I replicated that torka cooking technique when I moved to Mumbai, got married and set up our own kitchen. That was because my wife, a Mumbai girl and a Parsi, had fallen in love with the daal too. This happened when my mom sent me to bring it for dinner along with rotis from a roti shop at Netaji Nagar during one of our trips home.

I made it with a fair bit of success here and later taught our cook Banu how to make it and the torka dal is a fixture in our house in Mumbai now. We make the green moong version that you get in Bengali run shops in the suburbs of Kolkata. With and without egg both. I have had it in Assam too and I am told that you get it in Odisha as well. My friend and food researcher, Pritha Sen, once told me that the torka dal tradition emanated from the Punjabi run dhaabas of Kolkata, whose dal tadka our fellow Bengalis took to due to its flamboyance and novelty compared to the yellow dals of Bengali homes. The dhaaba one is made with black udad dal I think, versus the green moong of the parar dokans of the suburbs. I had a version of this at the Azand Hind dhaba in Kolkata recently which was brilliant though different from what I was used to in the burbs. More heavier. More regal.

Today: Mumbai 

The reverse dal torka that I made today

I decided to make green moong torka dal for K and me today. There was a Punjabi factor behind this decision too (like the one on the torka dal).  There were 3 parathas left from the stash our Punjabi friends, the Grovers, had recently sent us and we thought that we could pair the dal with these.

I soaked green moong the previous night. Enough to last for more than one meal. Lockdown cooking is about maximising our efforts in the kitchen and minimising washing needs for utensils. We are without domestic help for now due to social distancing.

I was about to cook at 1230 today when I got a call saying that an engagement that I had 2 was being rescheduled to right then. I had promised to cook the dal though and did not want to burden K with it. Cooking it once my engagement was over would be tedious and we would get late for lunch.

I had 10 minutes in hand and tried to make the most of it. I decided to go ahead and make the dal, but would reverse the process to make this possible. I would do the tadka first, then add the dal and let it cook. Not do the tarka later, the way I always do, based on the rutir dokan memories of Kolkata.

The lockdown kitchen is all about thinking on one's feet!


I put the pressure cooker on the hob. Heated a teaspoon of ghee, then added 1/2 teaspoon of whole cumin and kasoori methi (critical to the flavour). Then  added 1 finely chopped onion, a teaspoon of ginger and garlic paste, then finely chopped tomatoes. Stirring at each step till each new ingredient cooked. Then I added 1/2 a teaspoon each of turmeric, red chilli, cumin and garam masala powder. Then 250 g of pre-saoked green moon and 500 ml of water. My session was about to start and the water had begun to boil. I shut the cooker and told K, "4 whistles, lower the flame and then 30 min before you turn off the gas."

The dal was ready well in time for lunch. In the process I had saved some effort in terms of avoiding stage 2 of the cooking (the tarka) by doing the tarka (seasoning) at the start. I had saved an extra vessel (a wok to do the tadka and add the dal in) too. Less to wash at the end!

The process was a bit like the way K had made the Parsi masoor sometime back though that was more meticulous as she has dry roasted and ground the spices.

How the torka turn out? Very nice actually and combined well with the parathas.

Was it different from the usual torka that I make? The difference was subtle. The mouthfeel was more wholesome and nourishing. It lacked a bit of the sharpness and flair that doing the tadka later adds. Even though I added a bit of ghee at the end. Maybe it was all in my head!

This was more home food than dhaaba-like but then that is what this lockdown has been about hasn't it? Learning to appreciate one's home. Being grateful to have one.

Yes, I will try this method again for sure.

Also read:

  1. My post on the origins of torka dal and my usual recipe
  2. My post on Azad Hind Dhaaba