'Anna daata Sukhi Bhava' (May the person who supplies food, live well & prosper) - This is a blessing in sanskrit that is uttered at the end of every meal. It thanks not only the creator, but also the individuals who helped create a satisfying meal that enables others to thrive, the farmer who nurtured the crops, the grocer who made it accessible and the chef who cooked the ingredients into an unforgettable meal.
Hunger extends beyond culture, class race and species. Food is one of the four 'F's that every creature on earth is neurologically programmed by evolution & nature to seek in order to survive (the others being Fight, Flight and the 'F' word that describes the path to reproduction).
For those of us fortunate enough to go grocery shopping at the drop of a hat , especially those of us who live in the US of A ('oh, no, I'm running short of Plugra butter or Olive oil of a XYZ terroir'). We've almost forgotten that evolution programmed humans to expect food shortages, where the term 'seasonal' is used in an artisan sense, and fat, colorful plump produce is nothing but a grocery store hop away. It makes it all the more shameful that we as Americans, are unaware of a dirty secret, that almost 1 in 2 of our children will at some time in their life teeter on the brink of hunger. Shame regarding this (after all, every parent takes pride in ensuring that their children are well fed & clothed) drives this issue further underground. Just take a look at this trailer of the documentary 'A place at the table' from Participant media and it will give you an idea of how bad the situation is.
Growing up in India in the 1970's and 80's, I remember stories that my mother used to tell me about my grandmothers sense of generosity to anyone who worked as a household help. She would give away bushels of grain and vegetables that were grown on the family land without giving it a second thought. Her reasoning was that 'this person leaves behind her children just so that they can earn a living working for our family'. At no point of time should those children ever feel or get an inkling of regret that they went hungry because their mother/father was off helping out someone else for that negative energy would ultimately settle upon my grandmothers family. It was downright sacrilegious to waste food, doing so was akin to insulting Annapoorna, The guardian deity of one of the worlds oldest cities, Benaras who is revered the goddess of food (Annam- Food, poorna- one who grants).
Fast forward to this day and age when Children are ordered to throw out food into the garbage at school simply because they did not have the means to pay. To me this is feels criminal on two fronts. Depriving a hungry kid is bad enough, but that the food would be tossed into the trash is even worse.
It was a simpler time when fancy ingredients were out of reach for most of us middle class kids, but healthy food was taken for granted even if was the quintessential Dal Chawal or Dal Roti (lentils with either rice or Roti), served with a side of sauteed vegetables and a toasted lentil wafer known as paapad. Even today, this most elemental of Indian dishes is on the top of my comfort food list. And believe it or not, the nutritive value and flavor is matched only by its budget friendliness. The portions I made for my recipe were enough for 4 generous servings, all within a 4.00$ budget that food stamps allow for.
I opted to pick Lentils (known as 'masoor' in Hindi) as my protein source simply to showcase the variety available. From the common dehusked orange variety, all the way to the exquisite looking caviar like (and pricey!) black Beluga lentils.
Its unfair and cruel to preach to a hungry individual about nuances of cooking, when all they seek is eat a healthy balanced meal without resorting to borderline fake processed prepacked garbage that is so commonly found on supermarket shelves. Rather a simple guiding hand towards good wholesome food, and it paves the way for healthier and happier individuals who are better equipped to overcome other hurdles that they face in life.
The basic recipe for a Lentil dal has infinite possibilities for incorporating various flavors. At the basic level, onions sauteed to the point of caramelization add a meaty flavor with minimal help from other spices. Add a sprinkle of practically any spice blend and it transforms into a vehicle of flavor, transporting one to the culinary trends of different varied lands. I'll include a list of spice blends that I have used while making multiple variations of the same basic dal at the end of the recipe along with other healthy dishes that can be made with commonly found ingredients.
Dal Chawal (Rice and lentils) Serves 3-4
You need (for the rice):
1 cup rice (any short grained, or Jasmine)
3 cups water
1 pinch of salt
1/2 tablespoon oil or butter
Wash and rinse the rice. Heat the oil in a 3 qt pan and add the rice. On medium heat, saute the rice until it turns opaque.
Add the water, stir to ensure that no grains are stuck to the bottom of the pan. Bring the liquid to a boil and turn down the heat to low. Cover with a lid and allow the rice to cook until all the liquid is absorbed (~ 15 min). Use a fork to fluff the grains.
1 cup Split red Masoor lentils
3-4 cups water
2 tablespoons oil
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
2 large onions, grated
1-2 cloves garlic minced finely
1/4 cup tomato paste
1 pinch turmeric powder
1/2 teaspoon of your choice of spice blend (curry powder, garam masala...)
Chopped cilantro or dill weed for garnish
2 tablespoons lime or lemon juice
Rinse and drain the Lentils. Add the water along with the turmeric and bring to a boil. Lower the heat, cover and cook until soft but not completely mushed up (~ 15 mins)
In a deep skillet, heat the oil and add the cumin when the oil gets hot and begins to shimmer. Add the garlic and grated onion. On a medium heat, saute the until the onion just begins to caramelize. Add the tomato paste along with the turmeric, salt and spice blend. adding a sprinkle of water to deglaze if the tomato sticks to the bottom of the pan, stir until the tomato paste loses its raw aroma. Add the cooked lentils and stir to combine. Taste and adjust for seasoning. remove from the heat, stir in the lemon juice and garnish with cilantro or dill. Serve warm over rice.
Or simply by itself as a hearty stew,
Or puree the dal (prior to adding the lime juice and cilantro) and strain to obtain a delicious soup. Add a dash of sour cream or yogurt prior to serving.
I have made variations galore on the dal, some of the spice blends I've tried are Moroccan Harrissa, Ethiopean Berbere, Ras el Hanout as well as the occasional dab of Thai red curry paste. The possibilities are endless, but the dish is as comforting as ever.
The Orange lentils retail for about 1.69 / lb even for the high end organic variety and its about 2 cups (which would serve 6). Jasmine or any other short grain non fancy rice such as jasmine retails for 12.00 for a 20 lb bag (about 40 cups of uncooked rice at ~ 60 c / lb). Thats potentially 6 meals right there, not counting the other staples that need only be used in tiny quantities.
Some other dishes that can be made within a budget:
Pongal: A kedgeree of rice and lentils spiced with powdered cumin and pepper, the leftovers can be transformed into a delicious snack with the addition of some bread crumbs.
Vegan Potato Latkes:
Rajma: The North Indian version of the hearty Chili made with Kidney beans
Potato Patty sticks: Boiled spuds and stale bread give rise to this kid friendly snack
Black eyed peas Curry, this is yet another protein rich hearty curry that my family loves sopping up with a bread roll or rice.
To Nicole Gulotta & her team at Givingtable.org, Thank you for the wonderful opportunity to be part of this fabulous mission. Deep in my heart I do believe that there will be people who will have benefited from this noble cause and in their happiness will be embedded that little blessing 'Anna daata sukhi Bhava'. and this genuine offering of goodwill will help in making the world a better place for everyone.