Buttered Up: Branching out with a makeshift dal makhni

7 Min Read

By Sarah Khanna

I never thought I would miss Malaysia but I find myself regressing, filling myself with nostalgic desires, hoping to smell the salty stench of tandoori chicken as I lower my window to Cairo’s smog. For close to four years, I stalked the streets of Kuala Lumpur, comparing the dated and the new of its streets to my Cairo; wondering which was the better city and if I was the right person to judge.

I preferred how scorchingly sunny Egypt was to Malaysia’s glimpses of light that I would so graciously receive between thunderstorms but equally inclined was I to thoroughly enjoy and perhaps favor the street markets, packed with hawker food stalls handing out the free smell of salted chicken gizzard satay, glazed with a sweet peanut sauce and completed with a fat dollop of fried chili paste. I miss the food in Malaysia. The rain cannot dampen the memories of intensely pleasurable eating.

With all the things that make me feel at home in Cairo — friends, a common language and koshari — the fully stocked supermarket aisles leave me feeling empty.

Why can I not find vanilla extract? I don’t think anyone will be using it as an alcoholic drink anytime soon for them to be banning it from shelves. Why do I have to go to a store selling gourmet products to find fennel or bright and unbruised baby squash? Why is it so difficult to get Indian spices? I had become so desperate as to hunt through online forums for an Indian expat who would somehow hand over the address of a magician who makes Indian products appear when needed.

My decision was made. I would not be visiting a supermarket for my regular food shopping trips but rather for larger purchases that do not necessarily include food items: detergent, tissue paper, floor cleaners. Instead, my husband and I chose to venture out into this huge city we belong to.

Our finds were tremendous; dutch-processed cocoa, a dark reddish brown, was instantly snatched in the heart of Faisal Street, crunchy sesame-encrusted peanuts dipped in honey were brought home from Mohandiseen and rolls of thick cling film that doesn’t tear at the slightest tug discovered at my current market of choice, Suleiman Gohar Street, right behind Tahrir Street in Dokki. This market is where I’ll be every week, with no pre-written list to confine my buys.

On any given day, I’ll find butchers wiping their bloodied hands on their aprons as they grin at me, bakers packaging hot bread that has me finding the nearest place to make a sandwich, women draped in black selling freshly shelled peas and newly cored aubergines for a hot pot of dolma. All of this makes me want to take in more.

A stroll down and minutes later, I’m met with an antique dealer looking as weathered as the table he rests his hip on and onwards, a fun-spirited farmer wiping a date on his greige galabeyya, wooing me to break its flesh with my fingers before biting into its earthy sweetness. How can I not come back? Why would I return to regularly buying my food from a cold, sterile and mostly crowded megastore? Enough. I need some spirit in my food.

So now that I’ve found a place that has given me some peace of mind, a glimmer of hope that I might truly find the most beautiful of ingredients in the raw right here in Egypt, I’ve decided to tackle recipes that I once made with ease in Malaysia due to the availability of what I needed. While I could not find whole black lentils in Cairo for this nourishing Indian lentil stew, dal makhni, I did pick up packs of split black lentils which worked well and shortened the cooking time. Branch out into the beautiful city of Cairo and you most likely will find. The little farmers and small grocery store owners on the street might need you considerably more than you think.

Makeshift Dal Makhni
Split this into three phases for easy preparation.

Phase 1 will need:
Water for boiling
150 grams of split urad dal (black lentils)
Salt to taste

Phase 2:
3½ tablespoons of ghee
2 cloves of garlic, finely minced
½ a teaspoon of turmeric
2 green chilis, finely sliced
1 medium sized onion, finely diced
1¼ cup of fresh tomato puree
1½ coarsely teaspoons ground fennel seeds
1½ teaspoons of chili powder
½ teaspoon of ginger powder
1 scant teaspoon of ground cumin
1 teaspoon of ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon of curry powder
½ cup of water

Phase 3:
100 grams of butter (1 stick)
50 ml of cream
½ a teaspoon of chili powder
Salt and pepper to taste

Boil the lentils in hot water until tender. Begin testing for tenderness after 15 minutes. When done, drain and set aside. In a large pot, heat the ghee on medium heat until melted then add the turmeric, onion and chili and stir to combine. Add the garlic, cumin, cinnamon, ginger, chili powder and fennel seeds and stir once more. Allow the onions to soften and the spices to release their oils before adding in the curry powder then the tomato puree. Add the water and the pre-cooked dal and stir until it comes together. Bring it to a boil then add the chili powder, butter and cream. Simmer on low heat for no less than 30 minutes. I left it for an hour. Adjust seasonings and serve.

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