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Dal, you look wonderful tonight

A plate of lentils may be good for your health – but what can it do for your soul?

Glenn Patterson | March/April 2014

Sometime in the summer of 1989 I started to come a bit unhinged. I had moved out of the house I shared with my girlfriend in England and returned to Belfast to write my second novel. Or perhaps more accurately, to worry about not writing my second novel, about the prospect of never writing another novel again, and about my lifestyle generally.

I had already stopped smoking—scrunched up an almost-full box of Marlboro Lights one afternoon and threw it across the room. It missed the bin, but I left it anyway, where it landed, as an added goad. I was keeping an eye on my drinking—an occasionally blurry eye—but keeping an eye nonetheless. People didn’t speak the language of units then, but I wrote down in my diary each morning what I had drunk the night before, just as I had once written down how many fags I had smoked.

One August Saturday I woke and thought I had to stop eating meat. Just like that. There had, I seem to recall, been a television exposé earlier in the week about conditions on a battery farm, which had literally put me off my dinner; but the decision was not ethical. I just felt I had to do something more, something that would make it possible, or allow me to convince myself that it was possible (for somewhere not very far back that was what this was all about) to finish this fucking novel.

As I say, unhinged.

The first thing I did was empty my fridge and kitchen cupboards and pile all the food on the table. If I was going to be a vegetarian I was going to have to think like a vegetarian, not just leave a meat-shaped hole on my plate. Anything that looked as if it was waiting for a couple of sausages or a half-pound of mince to make its life complete went in the bin.

That done, I caught the train into town, walked from the station to Waterstone’s and went straight to the cookery section. I made my choice according to width: I wanted the book with the most recipes. Rose Elliot’s “Complete Vegetarian Cookbook” won by a good half-inch. I took it with me to the only wholefood shop in central Belfast and set about restocking my cupboard. I brought home a lot of lentils.

I was already a fan of Indian food from my time living in England: chicken curries, prawn curries, on a rare occasion, lamb curries. I hadn’t, that I could remember, until that day eaten a lentil curry, or dal. (The spelling of dal toggles between “dal” and “dhal”.) There were two recipes in the Rose Elliot book. I picked the second one on the strength of the sentence that read “this makes a hotter-tasting dal than the previous recipe”.

My spices had survived the cupboard cull. I even had some of the creamed coconut this particular recipe called for. (I have never since eaten another dal that did.) It did not call for a boiled egg quartered on top, but I added one anyway—I was turning vegetarian, not vegan. Barely half an hour after starting to cook, I sat down to eat.

It was so good I almost cried. I could live like this, no hardship. This wasn’t a giving up, like smoking: this was an embracing. Also, it had cost about 50p.

I ate it again the next night and the night after that. I ate it, I would hazard, at least twice a week from then until I finished the novel, two years later, and went back to England. Actually, I would hazard I’ve rarely gone more than a week without dal in the almost quarter of a century since. There have been variations—many, many variations, for the ways with dal and its possible pulses are legion. I feel bound to try every new recipe I come across. My current favourites are a panchmael (five-lentil) dal, a toor—or toovar—dal from Bangladesh, soured with tomatoes and tamarind water, and a Nepalese version made exclusively with hulled mung beans. Touted by the British food writer Felicity Cloake as “perfect”, it’s not far off.

But still sometimes I go back to that first Rose Elliot recipe. (The book doesn’t fall open at page 191: it jumps.) Because in a way that sounds ridiculous now, but made complete sense at the time, it saved me.

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