In most South Indian kitchens, there are the Big Four dals or paruppus – tuvar (tovarai), urad (ulundu), channa (kadalai) and moong (payaru). In the north, they have masoor as well. They’re the must-have dals if you aspire to a reasonably equipped kitchen. Naturally, we’ve been attempting to grow all these on our farm, but with such limited success that I’m ashamed to make the claim at all. We do get plenty of fresh green lentils, but they have been hard to preserve and store.
Tuvar, her of sambar-rasam fame, is accommodating, inasmuch as she does not object to our soil. Every year, I have a row or two of healthy looking tuvar plants. Some are annual, some biennial; some the large pigeon pea variety, some the small local type. The flowers are lovely, fragrant too, and the plants are weighed down with pods. The parakeets come every day to enjoy the feast, but there’s still a lot left for us. But then, after we’ve all enjoyed the green ones, no one knows what happens. Because we end up with a pitiful quantity of dry dal, riddled with insect holes, and not tasting very good.
Then there’s King Urad, that the sages believed was the vegetable equivalent of meat protein. Urad – indispensible ingredient of idli, dosai, crunchy murukku, and various masalas and podis. How does he fare under our care? Rather well, until the rats discovered us. They don’t eat the dal, but they have been burrowing under the drip beds and so we, as urad growers, are undone. (Experiments with onions as rat repellants are underway.)
Ditto moong dal.
Last is the delicious channa dal, made of kabuli or black desi chana – I’m not sure. Sole ingredient of miraculous besan. Our track record in growing it is too painful to talk about.
So where does that leave us? Dal-less, that’s what. Disastrous for a vegetarian, lentil- dependent family.
Until now. Now, we’ve discovered a dal we can grow! A hardy, bountiful, savoury, wonderful-smelling, oil-oozing, adorable dal! A dal that gave its name to a city: benda-kaallu-uru (boiled bean town) = Bendakaluru = Bengaluru.
The avare, as it is called in Kannada, seems to share both its local and its scientific name with a similar bean – dolichos or hyacinth bean, which is, however, flatter and lacks the distinctive smell. In Tamil, it has its own name – mochakai. The name avarekai is reserved for the non-smelly sibling. The distinction is an important one; why isn’t it more commonly made?
We have always loved the vegetable, which has a short season from December to February. There’s always more than we know what to do with, and the insects end up getting a lot of it. But this year, we had the whole dry seeds milled and made into dal. This is commonly done in our area, but a well kept secret from the rest of the world. Maybe we are extra dumb, but it’s taken us years to find out what the locals do with their avare! Our new helper from the village, Govindamma, did the milling on this new-old yendram alias ragi kal (extreme right), bought off a villager who’d thrown it out.
It looks like tuvar dal, only bigger, cooks more easily and is beautifully soft. And makes the most wonderful sambar and rasam. This year, I’m pinning all my agricultural hopes on mochakai. I plan to grow two fields of it and convert it all to dal for family and friends. Move over, tuvar dal!
The next experiment will be karamani dal. This is the seed of the yard-long bean, which also grows easily in our land, though not as prolific as mochakai. Then there’s the agathi bean, whose possibilities we’re just discovering. And double beans, which I’m told must now be called lima beans, and winged beans and horsegram – so many possible dals once your eyes are opened. All the world’s a bean feast, and all the men and women merely eaters!