Dal is not boring, says food expert Rushina Munshaw

A celebrated food writer, author and culinary chronicler, Rushina Munshaw Ghildiyal started out as one of India’s pioneering food bloggers. Her leap into the culinary world began inadvertently she admits, while looking for recipes online and blogging. The writing would open many doors of opportunity in the field and, later, turn her into an entrepreneur.
Today, Rushina heads A Perfect Bite, a premier food consulting which was set up in 2008 and APB Cook Studio which functions as a food lab, test kitchen and food content studio.
An expert in Indian and world cuisines, she specialises in Indian food studies, with a special interest in regional cuisines of Garhwali and Kutchi Bhatia communities. She is also the person behind initiatives such as Indian Food Observance Days, The Pledge to Eat Indian movement and the Godrej Food Trends Report.

With more than 15 years of experience in the Indian food industry, Rushina will be in Melbourne next week to talk about plant protein which is gaining currency these days. According to the author and cook, “Plant protein is being hailed as the future of food security globally. But in India dal (lentils), the ingredient, and the concept of dal, the dish, is rooted in the ethos of Indian culinary history. Over time, dal has come to be culturally important as well. It is one of the first foods we are fed, present in rituals, feasts and festivals. Today the sheer variety of dals – the umbrella term for dried legumes, pulses and lentils – consumed in India is incomparable.”
In conversation with Rushina Munshaw Ghildiyal on the evolution of dal as a as a primary source of protein and its impact on Indian culinary evolution, and more.

Tell us a bit about your culinary journey?
My journey has been one of serendipity. I am a culinary chronicler, teacher, corporate food consultant, and curator of food experiences. I write on food for several reputable publications and consult on food panels. I chanced upon food writing as a career option way back in 2004. In 2005, I started my career in food writing and also set up my first food blog. (I was one of India’s earliest food bloggers). Over the years I expanded my skills into food styling, and more. In 2008, I opened A Perfect Bite® Consulting, a premier food consulting firm. In 2012, I launched what was India’s first hands-on kitchen studio, The APB Cook Studio® which today functions as a food lab, test kitchen and food content Studio. Over a career spanning 14 years, I’ve had the privilege to working on some fantastic projects and been part of many wonderful start-ups.

You say plant protein is being hailed as the future of food security globally. Is this the future?
I cannot say whether plant protein is the future. But for a while now, there has been a growing concern globally about the adverse effect of diets dependant on animal-based foods such as meat, dairy, poultry and fish. Production of these stresses the environment far more than food particularly protein from plant sources, which is why the world is looking into more environmentally-friendly options. Legumes and lentils have been identified as one possible solution and research is underway all over the world in this area. My point is, India already consumes a plant forward diet, we adapted to this way of eating eons ago. India eats more dal in more ways compared to any other culinary culture in the world.
Dals are a go-to food, an integral half of the cereal-pulse combination that is the mainstay of the contemporary Indian diet. They have also been carried with Indians wherever they have travelled and are found in Indian diaspora cuisines all over the world. And it is the consumption of this that I will be talking about.

What is one of the easiest ways to cook lentils?
The easiest way to cook lentils would be the everyday dal we eat in India. Dal (as the ingredient is also called) is boiled with water and then tempered with spices. Dals can be thin and soupy or thick and textured depending on how they will be eaten. They go with steamed rice or flatbreads as the daily meal every day in many homes in India.

What ingredients go best with dal? What are your favourite ingredients to cook with?
Dal can be as simple as the lentils boiled and tempered with a little asafoetida or cumin and flavoured with turmeric and salt. Or it can also have elaborate preparations with whole spices, sautéed garlic, onions, and tomatoes. However way you choose to cook it – everything works! Nothing can beat a meal of steaming hot rice and dal with a little pickle on the side!
My favourite – very indulgent – way to cook dal however is to fry lots of garlic in butter or ghee (clarified butter) till it is golden brown and add it to the boiling dal.
Garlic and chillies are my absolute favourite ingredients.

But what can first time Indian-food cooks absolutely not compromise on especially when cooking dal?

Cooking the beans/ lentils thoroughly. Whole legumes and beans have earned themselves a justifiable reputation as hard to digest. Undercooked versions can lead to upset tummies. But this can be avoided if they are properly soaked and cooked. It is important that the first-time cooks of dals learn to cook their beans and lentils properly. Skinned and split lentils like split mung or red lentils are easy to cook and easy on the stomach. I would recommend starting with those.

What is your advice to people unsure of making the change to cooking more vegetarian food?
Try it! Vegetarian dishes and vegetables can add a lot of new textures, flavours and fun to everyday meals.

Can you elaborate a bit more about DALicious- the Ultimate Grain? What are some of the myths and facts about the ubiquitous Indian dal?
That there is a yellow and a black dal and that is it.
Dal is typically yellow. This is because of the way it is cooked. All split dals are typically cooked with turmeric which makes them yellow so it can be misleading, but a yellow dal made of split mung tastes very different from one made of split red lentils (which are reddish-orange when uncooked but are cooked into a yellow dal). We also have whole bean-based dals that may be red (red kidney beans and tomatoes) or black (made from black beans). These get their colour based on the beans used and how they are cooked. But they also take longer to cook and may be made for special meals.
That Dal is boring – it is not! We eat at least 30-40 types of dal (the grain) in India, which are cooked into thousands of dishes. I could cook a different dal every day of the year without a single repeat!
That Dal is difficult to cook. It is not like all foods. One needs to understand the nuances of cooking dal. But once you do, it is easy.

(As told to The Indian Weekly)