Indian Soup – Dal

While still a student of law in London, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi around the year 1889 met a Gujarati writer and critic Narayan Hermchandra. Like other students Gandhi also was quite influenced by the British life style, adopted many British customs but remained vegetarian. Once Gandhi made carrot soup for Hemchandra, but did not satisfy the very patriotic Hemchandra whose longing for Dal could not be comforted. Hemchandra looked for some Moong Dal and cooked it and Gandhi admits that he himself ate with so much satisfaction. Hemchandra was patriotic to the core and his love for India could not be eclipsed by Western fancies. Hemchandra always wore Indian attire wherever he travelled and was once officially charged for dressed indecently in the US, this had a lasting impression on Gandhi. This even stands for culinary opposition: Dal versus soup and that the Indian food is incomplete without dal, it further affirms the fact that Indian cuisine does not have soups.

In The Raj at Table: A culinary history of the British in India, David Burton illustrates that how thin sauces were always poured over plain rice rather than be drunk separately. The thali concept of dining where all the food dishes placed in small bowls in a large plate also endorses that course dining was never a part of Indian food culture. Soups in British food occupies a stage of course meal rather than to be poured over other foods, rather other foods are put into the soup like fried bread croutons.

Colonel Kenney- Herbert who retired from British army in Madras Cavalry and later started writing on food explains the reasons for not having soups in Indian cuisine. He narrates that in colder countries where a fire is perpetually kept to keep warmth the stock pots with meat bones and kitchen scrapings endlessly simmered and replenished with liquids which provided as a base for all soups and such a thing was not practical in India where the climate is hot and without the refrigeration the stock would get spoilt unless consumed immediately.

The entire idea of what a soup is or in case of Hemchandra what Indian food is all about, but in all this debate a thing that is clear that we all are looking for a liquid which has been a source for sustenance since very old times. Either one calls it a soup or a dal, either it is made with meat or vegetable stock, make it spicy or subtle, keep it thin or thick, drench croutons or wheat bhakri, serve it hot or cold, ultimately it is from the same food chain.

Getting out from the argument whether India has soup or not a thing which makes us think is the large variety of innovative liquids which the Indian kitchen has created.

Most apparent is Mulligatawny or the Indian soup derived from milagu-tanni, in Tamil it stands for pepper water which is kind of quite similar to Rasam.

To meet the British demands of having a course of soups perhaps that the cooks from Madras started serving rasam from the water left from boiling dal.

The cooks might have thickened it to suit the British palate but kept it on a little spicier side.

The same rasam when travelled with the indentured labourers from south India to Mauritius came to be known as rasson that at times was laced with a generous pour of rum. This custom of adding alcohol to soups has a long stranded history wherein vodka is added to beef bouillon to make it a soup cocktail called as Bullshot. Similar in French food of adding some wine to the last bits of soup.

To give a bit of a fruity punch bits of pineapple were simmered into the rasam and became quite a popular dish in weddings in Chennai. Even addition of fruits in soups is quite traditional in many food cultures like the Hungarian sour cherry soup made from dried apricots. Even plum and tomato soup is a good innovation which gives a boring tomato soup a strikingly fruity punch.

Well with so many contrasts between Indian dals and Western soups there could be a bit of borrowing and a source of inspiration and inventing something new. Like instead of making a roux with refined flour and butter besan or chickpea flour can be a healthier option, similar to Indian Kadhi. Even to rajam or chhola meat stock could be added for a more subtle flavor. Maybe tempering or tadka  by frying  some spices in hot oil at the last moment and adding it to the  brown soup can make it taste much more interesting.

Apricots may find their way in dals to give a Middle Eastern touch, the red Amarnath tree leaves could be added instead of beetroot in the famed Russian soup Borscht to give a nice strikingly red colour. Even carrot soup cooked in coconut milk tastes so good and maybe Hemchandra might have liked it if Gandhi had made it that way.