Is Daal Makhani the Vegetarian’s Butter Chicken?

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Britney Spears walked down Los Angeles’s La Cienega Blvd. Her click-clacking heels made music with the swish-swash of her blue jeans. The rumbling of her stomach was making music of its own. She tossed her blonde ponytail and surveyed the choices around her. A big pink sign caught her attention across from the Stinking Rose. The dazzling ribbons of yellow gold declared it to be a Spice Affair. Not too long back she had sung at a show with the Spice Girls. She reached for the door and entered the lounge. The fountain danced a merry tune behind her, gurgling in joy. Her two bodyguards followed her in.

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Britney ordered Butter Chicken. The creamy melt-in-your-mouth Daal-Makhni or the black lentil dish came with it, in the lunch special. The story goes that Butter-Chicken was a creation of Kundan Lal Gujral, who had moved to Delhi in the 1950s, after the partition of India and Pakistan. He had opened Moti Mahal restaurant in Daryaganj. The buttery tomato sauce was invented to be slathered over the tandoori chicken to keep it moist and succelent.

Who carried the recipe for Daal-Makhni and from where? “We never had black dal at home when I was growing up and as far as I recall, most restaurants in Bombay in the Sixties and early Seventies also did not serve any dish that resembles the black dal so ubiquitous on today’s restaurant menus,” writes Vir Sanghvi, the food guru. His friend Gautam Anand, said to him that his mother remembers urad dal from Lahore in the pre-Partition era. But, the daal she remembers was not made with whole urad. She did not see this kind of lentil used in daal till she came across after the Partition. It was the split urad that was used in the making of the daal.

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Additionally, says Vir, “even if you dispute the distinction between the two kinds of urad, what is clear is that pre-Partition Punjabis did not put tomatoes in their dal. If they needed a souring agent, they used yoghurt.” They all agreed that it was Kundan Lal who invented the latter day Daal-Makhni perhaps out of a desire to do a shahi dal to go with the rich non-vegetarian food.  After all it was a case of taking the black lentil of his ancestors and adding the makhni sauce to it.

Voila! Butter-chicken was now matched by its vegetarian counterpart, the Daal-Makhni.

Britney skipped the cocktail menu. Mumbai Mule (vodka, ginger liqueur, cardamom honey and a lime wedge in an icy copper mug) though inviting would have to wait for another day. She picked up her bag and made her way towards the door. Her Affair with Spice had been smooth and buttery today. The two bodyguards would have their affair with the bird another day.

Get a taste of Spice Affair this festive season. Tweet your picture to @Indiacurrents and you too could be featured in the year-end issue of India Currents and be invited for dinner to Spice Affair.

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