Arranged marriage and daal bora (red lentil fritters).


I was about 8 or 9 years old when I was allowed to tag along with some neighborhood girls. They were teenagers then, and very interested in boys and marriage. This was late 70’s India, where girls stole glances at young men and vice versa but very few openly had a relationship. Arranged marriages were prevalent, love marriages were rare. One of the girls in that group was from a big family. She was the youngest of 10 siblings. Her older sisters were regularly sitting in front of families of prospective grooms to be ‘shown’ for marriage. She had a lot of ‘insiders’ information on how the process went and we were her adoring audience. She told us one of prospective groom’s father asked a sister in one such ‘viewing’ that if the family had only rice and masoor dal (red lentil) in the house what food can the girl make out of those ingredients. She was being judged for her resourcefulness in a mid to low income level Bengali family. The girl responded she would make rice, daal, dal bora (lentil fritters), daal bora r jhol (fritters in a curry), daal borar chutney……. and I forget what else.

Although I have eaten daal er bora occasionally in Indian restaurant near me, I have never ventured to make any from scratch. Just a few days ago, in a conversation with my college buddies on wsapp the topic of daal er bora came up. I eagerly asked for the recipe and when my friend gave it to me, I thought “This is easy. Even I can do it.” And I did.

The fritters are simple, delicious and yes, a tad unhealthy. I thought of frying them in my airfryer but instead I went old school and fried them in oil.

  1. You need to soak 1 cup of red lentils overnight or at least for couple of hours. This is what masoor dal or red lentil looks like:

2. Drain the water in a sieve and put the wet lentils in a food processor to pulse it to a paste with a few tsps of water.

3. Add 1 tsp of kalounji seeds (nigella seeds) with the paste – optional

4. Add 2 tbsp of finely chopped onion – optional

3. Add 2 tbsp of chopped coriander leaves. I love coriander leaves but if you don’t like them, you can leave them out.

4. Add 1 tsp of turmeric powder and if you like spicy, 1/2 tsp of red chilli powder

5. Add 2 tbsp of corn starch to make the fritters crispy

6. I like to dice one of two green chilies in the mix. If you like them, throw them in. Who is going to stop ya?

7. Add salt to taste and yes, a tiny bit of sugar. We Bengalis like a little sugar in our food.

8. Mix all the ingredients together. Heat oil in a pan or wok, put tbsp full of the lentil mixture in the hot oil and fry till they turn golden brown.

These crispy fritters taste delicious as a snack with your evening tea or as an accompaniment to rice and daal.

So I ate them for dinner with my rice and dal. Sean ate a few with his sandwich. Ryan bit into one and gave the rest to me. Sahana ate a few dipped in her daal.

Since I made many in my excitement, we still had quite a few leftover. I remembered the resourcefulness of the ‘would be’ bride of my childhood and made red lentil fritters curry the next day when the crispiness of the fritters was gone.

For the curry:

  1. Cut a potato into small cubes.
  2. Make a tsp of fresh ginger paste or finely grated.
  3. Heat a little oil in a wok.
  4. When the oil is hot, add a tsp of cumin seed. It splutters, be careful.
  5. When cumin splutters, add the grated/paste of ginger and let is cook for 20 seconds till the raw smell of ginger is gone.
  6. Now add a small can of tomato paste. Lower the heat and let the tomato mixture cook till the oil separates. Add 1 tsp of turmeric and 1/2 tsp of red chili powder. Add a little water from time to time so masala does not burn.
  7. When the tomato mixture thickens, looks rich red and oil separates, add a tbsp of tomato ketchup. Mix together. Add a cup of water to the mixture and add the potato cubes.
  8. Let the potatoes cook in the gravy. Add more water if needed.
  9. When the potatoes become tender, add the fritters. Add more water since the fritters soak in water and the gravy dries.
  10. Add salt and let the gravy simmer for 10 minutes or so.
  11. Before turning the stove off, add a tsp of garam masala and 1 tsp of ghee (clarified butter). The ghee is completely optional.

The widows in Bengal were expected to live a life of austerity after their husband died. The measure of austerity involved giving up not only meat, fish and eggs but also onions and garlic. The ladies became creative and derived delicious meals with the ingredients that they were allowed to consume. Daal er bora is supposedly one such dish that the widows of Bengal invented. Tasty and versatile that can enrich your taste buds even without the use of garlic and onions.

Resourcefulness has been the means of survival for women for centuries in every aspect of life including food.

Difference


I was often asked in the early years of my marriage to a man of different ethnicity, how do I deal with the cultural difference. I scratched my head and pondered. Was there much of a difference? Sean and I were different culturally but the core values were (and still are) very similar. We both firmly believe in honesty, integrity, transparency, we are both stubborn, control freaks, we both love being parents. We have similar views on world peace, gun control, liberalism so on and so forth.

There were some cultural differences though. And the differences came to mind as I slit two green chilies and threw them in the egg curry I was making for supper a little while ago. When we were newly married, he called me a hot chick and I took extreme umbrage at the endearment. I lashed out at him for not respecting me as a woman. He was flabbergasted at my reaction to his effort at being romantic and quickly mollified me by saying, ‘Must be a cultural difference, I meant you are attractive!’ After asking around and being laughed at by our mutual friends I accepted the fact that he was genuinely trying to be cool and romantic.

He called my purse ‘pocket book’, I never figured out why.

“Why do you call this a pocket book? It is neither a book nor is it a pocket!” I exclaimed.

“Well that is what it is called. Not purse. Purses are small!” He countered.

Then we would get into a major argument over it till we decided to let it go by terming it as a cultural difference.

He laughed hard when I swatted at him and said, “Don’t give me that cock and bull story!”

“What is cock and bull?” He laughed.

“What!!!! Don’t tell me you don’t know what that means! You are a native English speaker! Hello!! Do I need to teach you English now? I laughed back at him.

“We call that bull shit!”

“Well, I am classier than that, I guess!” I came right back.

One time we fought over the meaning of ‘karma’ all morning. We both got dressed in a huff and ran over to Enoch Pratt library to look at dictionaries and encyclopedias. This happened at a historic time, pre Google. Can you believe time existed, life existed before smart phones and Google? There you go, I went ahead and dated myself.

And we joked constantly over British English and American English. It took me a while to drop the ‘u’,s in favor, color. But eventually I did. I conformed. I gave in. Although I am still an anglophile at heart.

After 20 years of knowing him we don’t think of cultural difference any more. Now the difference of opinion is in our choices of football teams and baseball teams. So why did I think of the cultural difference as I evilly threw in the green chilies? Because Sean, despite his fondness for Indian food, can not tolerate the smell and spice of green chilies. And I can not ever become American enough to forego my love for it. I put green chilies in dal, vegetable, paneer either as a garnish or I make a puree of it by processing it in the food processor. I assure you, I go easy on the number of chilies I put, but if Sean happens to chew on one, he yelps and hiccups. I feel slightly guilty and decide not to add them next time. But when I see the golden daal simmering beautifully in the pot, the Bangali in me reaches for a lovely, lush green chili (errr…maybe more). It looks so beautiful and familiar, it smells so fragrant and yes, familiar. How can I resist it? Similar with achaar (Indian pickle). I have indoctrinated my two children into loving achaar – lime pickle. Their meal is not complete without it. While Sean can not stand the smell of it.

“You are not a true Indian!” I say to him. “I have failed to Indianize you!!”

“Uff, I don’t know how you can stand that stuff!” He replies.

And then, when he discovers a green chili in his daal, he says to the kids, “Your mom is trying to trick me again. She is trying to kill me! Help!”

You will think of me as very mean, but I will go ahead and confess that I laugh hysterically (although soundlessly) after he bites into a green chili by mistake. What? It has some vitamin or other. It is good for him. As they say in India, you don’t really grow up unless you learn to eat green chillies. I am just helping my husband grow – culturally.

🙂