Dried Pea Masala: split infinitives and infinite splits

This is a split post: it’s split between India and Manchester, has split and unsplit peas, and argues the case for the split infinitive. There are rules about writing that I’m strict about: the incorrect use of apostrophes, pairing a plural subject with a singular verb (and vice versa), using too many adverbs, and reaching for a cliché just because it happens to be nearest. But there’s one grammatical convention I’ve never worried about breaking and that’s the split infinitive. Where would Star Trek be if we’d never been allowed ‘to boldly go’? And, in any case, just try removing the split infinitive from this: ‘The dough needs to more than double in size before it’s ready for the oven.’ Reconstructing the sentence simply makes it, like the dough, more than double in size.

I’ve just returned from India, where I tried endless variations on dhal, one of my favourite foods. The word itself means ‘split’ and can refer to any kind of lentil, bean or pea, so long as it’s been divided into two halves. So, to use a split infinitive, to eagerly cook a dhal produces an infinite number of splits. A chef I talked to in Udaipur gave me his recipe for tarka dhal, which goes like this:

FOR THE DHAL

  • 200g split yellow mung beans, soaked in cold water for half an hour
  • I finely chopped onion
  • 1 teaspoon turmeric
FOR THE TARKA

 

  • 2 tablespoons ghee
  • 2 teaspoons cumin seeds
  • 4 cloves garlic, sliced
  • 5cm piece ginger, peeled and grated
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 2 teaspoons chopped green chilli
  • 2 medium tomatoes, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon chilli powder
  • Chopped coriander
Bring the ingredients for the dhal to the boil, reduce to a simmer and cook for around 45 minutes until soft. (The chef added salt at this stage, but I prefer to leave it until the end.) Heat the ghee in a frying pan, add the cumin seeds and cook until they crackle, then add the garlic, ginger and green chilli and sauté for a minute or so. Add the chopped onions and cook on a medium heat until they’re golden brown, then add the chopped tomatoes. Cook for around five minutes and then add the tarka tempering to the lentils. Season to taste and sprinkle with the chopped coriander.

 

 

The word ‘pulses’ doesn’t have much poetry to it. But I’ve just been given some with a name designed to beguile. They’re called Red Foxes and they come from a small producer in Suffolk called Hodmedod’s. (Their other pulses are called Black Badgers and Gog Magogs, names which I like even more.) None of these pulses are split, so they can’t be used for dhal. But they’re perfect for a masala – a dhal with spheres instead of hemispheres.

RED FOX PEA MASALA

 

  • 250g dried peas or chickpeas, soaked in cold water overnight.
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil (I used organic rapeseed oil from Hillfarm Oils)
  • 1 large onion, chopped finely
  • 6 cloves garlic, grated finely
  • 5cm piece of ginger, peeled and grated finely
  • 1 green chilli, seeds removed
  • 2 teaspoons each of ground cumin and ground coriander
  • 2 teaspoons chilli powder
  • 1 teaspoon turmeric
  • 250g tomatoes, chopped
  • Salt to taste
  • 2 teaspoons garam masala
  • Coriander leaves
Drain the peas or chickpeas and add to a large pan of unsalted, boiling water. Simmer for an hour and then take off the heat. Heat the oil in a frying pan and fry the onions until golden brown (this takes around ten minutes.) Add the garlic, ginger and green chillies and cook for a couple of minutes, before adding the coriander, cumin, chilli powder and turmeric. Finally, add the peas, tomatoes and around 400ml of their cooking water and simmer for twenty minutes. Finish with the garam masala and sprinkle over the coriander.

This is where my post splits – we’re off to Manchester now. I think I must like dhal so much because I was brought up on the glories of fish and chips with mushy peas. By mushy peas, I absolutely do not mean posh petit pois that have been bashed about a bit and had fresh mint added; to me, they’re an abomination when served with fish and chips. By mushy peas I mean proper dried marrowfat peas that have been soaked, simmered to within an inch of their life, and then doused in brown malt vinegar. When I was a trainee BBC news reporter in Manchester, I lived with my grandpa in his tiny house with its riotous wallpaper. It was the height of the bitter miners’ strike. I couldn’t afford a car, and must have been one of very few news reporters to be driven to picket lines and working collieries by their elderly grandpa in a clapped-out, dark brown Ford Granada estate.  If I was working the late shift, he’d be waiting outside the BBC’s Manchester headquarters at 2am to pick me up, Jim Reeves singing Bimbo on the car’s cassette player.

 

We lived happily on fish, chips and mushy peas with mugs of malt-vinegar coloured tea. Grandpa left school at fourteen and worked down the pits himself, before becoming an apprentice painter and decorator. He was always much happier on days when I was reporting the strike from the point of view of the strikers than he was when I interviewed miners who were continuing to work. I never eat mushy peas, dhal, or chickpea masala without thinking of him and his joie de vivre. The irony is that he would have detested any recipe with spices – he was a man so timid about food that he peeled his tomatoes before eating them – but he would have loved the generosity of spirit that goes with spiced dhal. He always wanted to be an engineer and inventor, but never got the chance. Yet he always retained the ability to keep his eyes on the horizon and to embrace all points of view.

 

 

 

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6 thoughts on “Dried Pea Masala: split infinitives and infinite splits

  1. These pictures are beautiful Charlie! I remember when I went to India a few years back and got stuck there because of the Icelandic volcano. Such an amazing place though, and it will be nice to try some actual homemade curry for a change rather than whimping out on the takeaway as usual!

  2. A delicious looking recipe as always. I don’t think I will ever tire of your wonderfully interesting and witty posts, never stop blogging!

  3. What a most welcome return. Your combination of skilful, erudite and most diverting writing with terrific photos and great recipes must be getting on for unique. If something can’t be ‘getting on for’ unique, let’s just say unique and be done with it. I can’t understand why an enterprising publisher hasn’t already beaten a path to your door in order to put your wonderful literary take on food in print. Your work surely deserves a less ephemeral platform, wonderful though the world of blogging is.

    • I’m delighted to hear that you enjoy my posts – and very grateful that you’ve taken the trouble to leave a comment. It’s always rewarding to hear readers’ reactions and I couldn’t be happier to hear that this post resonated with you.

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