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:


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


  • 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.



  • 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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