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Dabbling in dhals

20 April 2004 by

Since it opened in 2001, Iqbal Wahhab's Cinnamon Club has helped push back the boundaries of Indo-European crossover cooking. The restaurant adopted Western presentation; it borrowed from the Western larder; it even, in the right context, undercooks red meats. But what Vivek Singh, its executive chef, has never done is to betray his culinary roots. He, like other new-wave Indian chefs, has stayed loyal to the traditional techniques - he never compromises with the flavours that are central to his craft skills.

Fusion should be a two-way street. Vivek Singh, Udit Sarkhel, Andy Varma, Vineet Bhatia, Atul Kochhar and a string of other chefs with roots in the subcontinent have evolved their styles. But so far, there's little evidence of, say, Michel Roux or even Heston Blumenthal borrowing from them. The Savoy isn't planning to install tandoori ovens. And that's a shame because, in matters of taste and mouth-feel, the Indian stars can teach simple lessons that are both practical and accessible.

Dhals are basic to the Indian diet. We translate the word as "lentils" but "pulses" would be better, because several kinds don't belong in the lentil family. Cooked to a potage or even porridge-like texture, they show how simple staples can be endlessly varied and subtle.

Contrary to what Western chefs may suppose, this is not the result of magical, secret blending using 25 spices in microscopic amounts. It's more about balancing a few ingredients intelligently. According to Vivek Singh, what matters more is: "Timing, sequence and heat control."

His dhal recipes are accessible because his methods will be familiar to cooks the world over. They depend on the order in which ingredients go into the pot, the heat of the range or stove, the degree of evaporation, and the moment when a dish is seasoned. Hotness, in the curry sense, is a red herring. He works with mild Kashmiri chillies in quantities adapted to his market. If he were in the Punjab, he might use slightly more, and in Madras a different kind of chilli - probably a much hotter one.

As regards the choice of spices, he's looking to achieve a unique flavour note. For instance, the characteristic taste of the channa dhal is of fennel seeds that are added in two different stages of the cooking - when tempering the spices and, finally, as a powder just before serving.

Vivek Singh

Masterclass Recipes

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