I’m suddenly interested in cheap food. Not that I’ve succumbed to the oily and addictive horrors of Chicken Valley in the South Lambeth Road. No. What I’ve woken up to is how well you can eat on a modest budget, and by “modest”, I really mean modest. And by “well” I really mean well. Forget the dreaded pasta bake, we’re thinking serious food.
The late- and great- Jocasta Innes led the field with The Pauper’s Cookbook, first published back in 1971. I’m the proud owner of a well-thumbed penguin. It’s a classic, although perhaps now slightly limited by the constraints of the period it was written in. The Cordon Bleu Cookery Course meets the WI.
I’ve got two other books on the subject: Great Value Gourmet, Meals and Menus for £1 by Paul Gayler and David Chater’s Impoverished Gastronome. The first was published in 1996, so taking inflation into account, we can forgive the optimistic title. The second book is a collection of cheffy recipes from various trendy restaurants, which is fun; but I’m not convinced that the recipes are that cheap. One of the problems is that you’ll need a well-stocked larder to cook them. That chicken thigh from Lidl might be great value it’s true, but the overall cost of the spices, bayleaves, lemon grass, jar of honey, tub of yoghurt, whipping cream, Thai paste, chilli and ginger required to cook the recipe is going to leave a whopping hole in your modest supermarket budget if you haven’t got these ingredients in the first place.
No, I’m thinking seriously cheap food. And to do this properly, you need to broaden your horizons. Take tarka dhal for example. In England most people come across this as a side-dish to eat with their curry. If you go to one of the better chains (Masala Zone or Dishoom immediately spring to mind) this will be served to you in a small bowl.
Of course, in India dhal is a staple food and often served as a course by itself with rice or bread. We’ve started to have it as a supper dish on a regular basis (served with steamed basmati rice) and I’m really beginning to appreciate it’s silky, buttery, subtle, savoury, comforting taste. Personally, I prefer it to be quite thin in consistency- almost like a soup- and I’m glad to hear that’s how the Indians like it too.
Get into dhal and you will find there’s a whole sub-culture out there; one region likes it this way, another region prefers it with this or that spice- there’s room for experimentation. This recipe comes from the excellent Anjum Anand, and I’ve now made it on numerous occasions with great success. All the ingredients can be found in the Indian section of a standard British supermarket:
Take 100 g of chana dhal lentils and mix them in a bowl with 50 g of dried red lentils. Cover with water and wash them through several times, until the water becomes reasonably clear. There’s no need to soak either lentil beforehand. Put the washed lentils into a large pan and cover with 1 litre of cold water. Bring the pan to the boil and skim off the white foamy scum that will start to collect on the surface of the water.
While this is going on, chop up the flavourings. Peel four cloves of garlic and chop and smash them up with a large pinch of sea salt to form a juicy paste. I use the back of a knife. Grate a large knob of peeled ginger and again, chop and smash it up with a knife to form a smooth paste. Add a teaspoon of turmeric, then the salt, garlic and ginger to the pan and simmer on a low heat, with the pan covered for forty minutes.
Now it’s time to make the tarka, which involves frying spices in oil. Heat a combination of oil and butter in a small frying pan. Add three dried red chillies and a teaspoon or so of cumin seeds to the pan and cook them until they are slightly browned. Be careful not to burn the cumin. Add a small onion, finely chopped and cook until well browned.
Next, add two chopped tomatoes, a decent pinch of garam masala and another pinch of sea salt and cook until the masala releases the oils. Anjum says ten minutes but I find this can happen sooner.
After the lentils have cooked for half and hour pour the finished spicy tarka into the pan with the lentils. Take off the lid and raise the heat and cook on a highish heat for another ten minutes or so. I like to add more water at this stage, so that it’s a bit like a soup. Check the seasoning and serve in a bowl with crisply fried onions and some chopped coriander.
I find that red onions for some reason are much easier to shallow fry than white or yellow onions and don’t seem to burn to the same extent. I’ve also tried adding more tomatoes- nice flavour, but shame about the colour, as I think for this classic dish you want more of a yellow colour which you’ll get (surprisingly) from the red lentils, once they’re cooked, as well of course, as from the turmeric.
There you are. A delicious, filling classic. Incredibly good for you too. And Mein Gott, it’s cheap. This recipe is enough for two people- and with small second helpings to spare. You can buy a 500 g packet of chana dhal lentil on the net for £1.05. A 500 g packet of red lentils from the same source costs £1.25. That works out as 21 p for the chana dhal and 12½ p for the red lentils. For two people.
Obviously you’ve also got to factor in the other ingredients, and if I’ve got time later on this afternoon, I might get my maths into action and work out the exact cost. I’ll report back with an update. But I think you will all agree, this recipe is amazing value for money. And it tastes fantastic, which is half the battle won.