Sunday, December 30, 2007

Feast India

The WGA strike has thrown a serious wrench into my holiday plan -- namely to catch up on as much television as is humanly possible before I'm returned to tele cold turkey when school term starts. Dame you rich studios, stop being such misers and pay the dame writers what they deserve. This leaves me with plenty of time to cook, and today, my mom, her friend, Wendy and I decided to cook up an Indian feast, LENTIL DAHL AND MUTTON MURTABAK. This I'm sure sounds humble to many Indians, but is truly a monumental task for 3 Chinese ladies. It turned out much more successful than I had dared to hope, and it just reminds me again why I love Singapore so much. The diversity of culture is so rich and incredible, and I feel so lucky to be right smack in the middle of it all. So, here comes the recipe


Dahl [serves 5]:

3 cups [whatever sized cups; keep in mind dried lentils expand when hydrated] yellow lentils




Yellow Onions/Shallots [Red Onions]

Whatever other vegetables you fancy, such as lady's fingers, aubergine/egg plant, cabbage.

Cumin seeds

Coriander seeds

Chili flakes/chili powder

Tumeric powder

Murtabak [serves 5]:

330g plain flour + extra for kneading

1 tablespoon oil/ghee

2 teaspoon salt

240ml warm water

Large amount of vegetable oil

300g minced mutton

2 clove minced garlic

1 minced onion

Tumeric powder

3 eggs

Ok, most Singaporeans would be well familiar with dahl and murtabak, though I won't dare say all, and I'm guessing most outside of Asia would have little knowledge of what they are, so I might be a little lengthy with the explanation.

As can be seen in the picture, dahl is a vegetarian curry made with vegetables and grains and pulses, most commonly in Singapore, the yellow lentil. It is usually served beside roti prata, murtabak and other flat breads as a kind of dip or sauce, though it is also commonly eaten as a dish all by itself, with rice.

Murtabak is really roti prata with a meat and egg filling. In Singapore, as well as in Malaysia, Indian stalls everywhere serve these two dish. Roti prata, without the filling, can be eaten savory, with either some kind of meat curry or dahl, or eaten sweet, with granulated sugar. Murtabak, on the other hand, because of its savory meat filling, is always taken with curry or dahl.

Lets begin with the dahl. It is a dead simple curry to cook, time consuming but requiring little attention. Cook lentils in enough water to cover roughly 3 fingers above the grains. This is dependent, as usual, on what kind of a consistancy you like your curry to be in. I like mine thick, so I usually reduce the water a little, or scoop them out once the grains are tender. Cook the lentils until you can mash them easily between your fingers. Next, add salt, tumeric, and all the vegetables. How the vegetables are cut depends on how you like them. Chunks if you like to see them, cubes if you like a mushy curry, like me. Boil away.

The way the spices are incorporated is really fun, but get all the spices ready before you start, as they burn really quickly so that in the time you step away to get another spice those in the pan already would have charred and turn bitter. Heat a little oil in a pan, and once smoking, add all the seeds, namely mustard, cumin and coriander. The mustard seeds will start to pop, which is ok. Stir around for a short time, then dump in the rest of the powdered spices. Stir for just a moment, then upend all the contents into the pot with the lentils and the vegetables. They'll bubble merrily, but will simmer down after a while. Continue to simmer until it is of desired consistency, and that is your dahl done. It freezes really well, and if kept in individual servings, on days when cooking just for yourself, you have an instant meal a few minutes away.

The murtabak may seem an impossibility, but it turned out to be surprisingly easy, if a little different from how we usually make bread. Combine flour, salt and oil, mix well. Clear a well in the middle of the bowl and add half the water first. Mix in the flour with a fork, and add more accordingly. Be mindful not to add too much at once; once added they can't be removed. Stop once all the flour has more or less been incorporated; even if the dough appear to be slightly dry,it is still possible to work in the rest of the flour. If any more moisture is added it'll be too wet. Scrap everything out onto a surface and knead, covering with flour when needed. I have thus far never been able to achieve that stick-free dough Jamie Oliver make look so easy, but a slightly sticky dough here works just fine, so knead till most of the dough doesn't stick.

Divide the dough in half and roll each half into a rough log. Snatch off golf balls sized pieces of the dough and put them into a bowl. Cover the dough balls with oil. This is to make it possible to stretch the dough without the dazzling skill of the prata man. The sight of a prata man at work is really something, and after today, I have a new appreciation for their skillfullness! Let the dough stand for an hour. If you don't have enough oil or you don't want to waste so much, put them into a flat pan and fill a little with oil, then turn over the dough every once in a while.

While the dough is standing, fry up the filling, starting with the onions and garlic until tender, then the meat and finally the tumeric. Taste and season, then set aside.

Once the dough is ready, we can start to make the murtabak. I found the dough to be rather temperamental, and there are a few key things to note when making the murtabak [or prata, if you want it plain].
  1. Only press out the dough when the pan is ready for frying. This applies to every flat bread you fry. So the pan have to be clear before you proceed to press out another ball of dough. This is because once pressed out, if left on the surface for too long, the dough starts sticking to the surface and your thin dough will be impossible to remove. On the other hand, just after you press it out, the dough is wonderfully slick, and comes off the table easily.

  2. The dough can only be pressed once. I'm assuming its the oil that makes it especially malleable, because the first time you press out the dough it'll stretch thin and long, but if you crumpled it back together and attempt it again, the dough shrinks into itself and becomes rubbery, refusing to stretch. If this happens, return to oil bath and rework it later. Don't worry if there are holes, they'll be covered up with egg later, and they don't affect the taste at all.

Ok, so how exactly to press out the dough? Take a ball of dough and place it on a flat surface. With the heel of your hand, press down on the dough and push outwards. Do it all over the dough, until you have a paper-thin piece of dough. Pick up the pastry and place it in the pan. Drop 3-4 tablespoon of egg over one side of the pastry, top over with sufficient amount of the meat filling, and with a spatula, flip the empty pastry over the fillings. Let until the egg is set, then flip over. Cook both sides until golden brown, and we're done! The murtabak is ready to be served with a small bowl of the dahl.

Our dismal first attempt:

Subsequent much more successful effort:

And I like to eat mine like this =)

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