Dahl – it takes skill – Monisha Bharadwaj

Monisha BharadwajI met Monisha Bharadwaj on a Guild of Food Writer’s Food Trip to Hampshire with Hampshire Fare and it was the perfect time to ask about dahl. I’ve struggled to make dahl that tastes and looks delicious, yet exam boards seem to think is is a low level skill. Wrong! But why not ask the expert?

Monisha is an Indian Chef, TV chef, food writer, author and cookery teacher and she knows a lot about cooking dahl, rice and raita.

Jenny – Do you think dahl is simple dish to make?
Monisha – ‘You’ve got to have a lot of skills to make dahl.  You need to know about sequence, proportion, balance and cooking time. How to cook the lentils properly to get the consistency right – getting the balance of spices and seasoning. There are many kinds of lentils and you need to know which type and colour to choose. Do you soak the lentils beforehand?

How long will you cook them to get the consistency you need – how thick or soupy should it be?

You need to get the spices and seasoning right to get the 6 tastes at the heart of Indian cooking – sweet, sour, salty, hot, bitter and astringent. For hot we use chilli, mustard and ginger. For bitter turmeric and cumin and for astringent turmeric and coriander.

Jenny – So how is dhal made?

Monisha – You need a high temperature frying oil to cook seeds, then onions, ginger and garlic.

Then add tomatoes, spice powder and lentils and cook with water until the lentils are soft. Taste and season with salt. Cook further if the lentils need to be softer.

Serve topped with coriander leaves.

Jenny – ‘When serving with rice – is that easy to cook?’

Monisha – ‘Cooking rice takes skill – knowing what rice to buy, what proportion of water to rice to use, the cooking time, draining and how to get it fluffy.’

Jenny – ‘So how do you cook rice?’

Monisha – ‘I wash the rice, fry spice seeds, add the rice and add 2 times the water by volume. Boil then reduce the heat, cover and cook for 10 minutes. Then leave for 5 minutes to fluff.

Jenny – ‘ Then serve with raita?’

Monisha – ‘Yes you can make it with grated cucumber, salt and pepper and plain yogurt.’

Jenny – ‘So Dahl, boiled rice and raita need high skills all round! Thanks’

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Thoughts on Food GCSE 2016 Practical by Jenny Ridgwell

The exam boards are busy finalising their teacher’s support resources for the Food Practical 2018 exam and I think it is fundamentally flawed.

Why? 3 reasons.

A 3 hour practical is too long to make 3 dishes. As a consequence, students are expected to make dishes that are too complicated and irrelevant for today’s cooking in order to fill the exam time.

Exam boards are busy listing dishes according to the ‘level of skill’ – high, medium or low. So students, pushing themselves to do well, will practise dishes that are too complex for modern, multicultural living. Examples given for high skill are lemon meringue pie with piped meringue, cream horns made from home made flaky pastry – a dish high in fat and sugar – and veloute sauce. Daft, too difficult and unnecessary work.

Someone needs to learn to respect the high level skill for making delicious food and serving it well cooked and looking attractive.

Someone needs to acknowledge that we live in a diverse multicultural and teenagers don’t need to cook so many pastry dishes and cakes. I find falafel served with tsaziki, salad and warm pitta bread a really hard dish to make, yet this is a low level skill. Think how hard it is to make a good curry and cook fluffy rice.

Teachers are encouraged to teach how to make pasta – great for fun, and delicious to eat. But what happens if 8 pupils taking the 3 hour exam all want to make pasta with the school’s only pasta machine? Isn’t such a demand putting great financial pressure on food rooms that already struggle balancing the books?

When I started teaching in 1970, my inner London students had to learn how to make shortcrust, rough puff, flaky and choux pastry – all high fat, complex dishes and during hot summer months the results were awful. We made jam puffs, Eccles cakes and cream horns packed with hydrogenated margarine and lard. After a year, I cleared out the antique equipment in my food store room – out went the heavy iron griddle pans, and dozens of cream horn tins and most of the fluted and plain flan rings.

Britain’s food culture was changing – out went the fatty, baked pies and in came spaghetti and rice to make sensible, healthy family meals. When I attended Whipps Cross hospital to give birth to my daughter,  one of my students called Carole, greeted me with ‘Hello Miss.’ I was shocked that I might be in labour next to a teenager, but pleased that I knew she could cook shepherds pie and make some fish cakes.

Please don’t let the new Food GCSE return to the dark ages of Bero Baking and Good Housekeeping’s Cooking is Fun. Our society deserves to learn to cook the massive choice of fresh fruit and vegetables, beans and pulses and celebrate our food diversity. Jenny Ridgwell

See Dahl on blog