Oh, Susannah! | TheUnion.com

Oh, Susannah!

Dal is a standard dish in many regions of northern India usually served with rice, curries, and other vegetable dishes. It’s sort of the fried chicken of India. Every family/region prepares it differently.

Susannah’s explanation for making Indian dal went something like this.

“Kshish! RRRR!! Kshish RRRR!”

Four fingers shoot up in the air meaning the pressure cooker lets off steam and makes this sound four times before the dal is cooked.

With knife in hand and pointing to the onions, garlic, and ginger, she says in English, “Cut, cut, cut, cut!” Circling the spoon in the air over the fry pan means sautéing them in the butter or ghee as is used in India.

I don’t have a pressure cooker so here is my Americanized version of how to make this delicious staple. Serve it with rice and raita which is a dish of yogurt with grated cucumbers and a dash of cumin and cayenne.

In India, dal is prepared in larger quantities to be used for several days, but this recipe is a smaller one for a first try. Enjoy!


1 1/2 cups yellow split peas *

1 teaspoon salt

3 cups vegetable stock or water

2 tablespoons oil

1 tablespoon black mustard seeds*

1/2 of green pepper, chopped

1 medium onion, finely chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 teaspoon turmeric powder*

1/2 teaspoon curry powder*

Juice of one lemon

Add the rinsed split peas to the boiling water or stock. Cover and turn heat to simmer, about 30 minutes. Cook until tender but not so long that they lose their shape. They should have the texture of mashed potatoes.

Chop the onion, garlic and green pepper.

Heat oil in a medium size pan with a good lid. Add mustard seed to hot oil and cover. Allow to brown but not burn — just a couple minutes on a low flame. Open the lid very carefully as the seeds tend to jump like popcorn. Stir in turmeric, curry powder, onion and green pepper.

Sauté until vegetables are soft and then add the peas along with the lemon juice. Makes about 6 servings.

*All of these ingredients can be purchased in bulk (in smaller quantities) at a natural foods store.

RANCHI, INDIA­­ — My husband, David, and I are the guests at the home/guesthouse of Mrs. Bhola Singh.

She is about 75 years old ­— a remarkable woman, independent and deeply devotional.

Under the direction of Indira Gandhi in the late ‘50s, she brought a group of young Indian dancers to the United States on a cultural exchange.

“In those days we had to prove to the world that not everyone in India was a snake charmer,” she told me.

Her husband passed away 10 years ago, and her loyal servants have been with her for 25 years.

As a Westerner traveling in India, the concept of servants is difficult for me to accept though it is not my place, as a guest, to judge.

Susannah cooks and her husband, Kailash, manages the house and gardens. They live in a small cabin on this beautiful estate, eat well, and Mrs. Singh also pays for their teenage son’s education.

The growing prosperity in India rarely reaches the lower classes. For most, life is harsh beyond our imaginations — in comparison Susannah and Kailash live well.

I sometimes walk into the spacious kitchen singing, “Oh Susannah, won’t you cook for me? For I’ve come from California with a hunger for to eat.”

Susannah explodes in embarrassed giggling. I sense that my friendliness crosses a few subtly drawn social lines, but Susannah and I have fun together.

Our attempts to understand each other begin and end with a great many thank-yous — one of the few words she knows in English and the only one I know in Hindi.

I can’t say that we converse, but we do communicate.

One evening I didn’t eat all the food she gave me. Her gestures asked why not, so I blew out my cheeks and walked like an elephant trying to show her how fat I’d become if I did.

She laughed and laughed, but soon she walked to the table and asked sweetly, “Not good?” I reassured her with more pantomiming about how delicious the food was.

I love this woman. Susannah teaches me more than just cooking. She sings quietly while she works and always smiles.

She’s humble and does her work even when her employer or the guests are impatient, grouchy or just getting older and harder to please. She understands the concept of surrender — of the joy of serving others more than this independent, don’t-tell-me-what-to-do American woman ever will.

For 50 years, advertising in the West encouraged women to get out of the kitchen as fast as possible. Sometimes I think we see cooking as drudge work to avoid.

Today in India, marketing is geared to the growing affluent generation of modern Indian women. It sounds exactly the same as what we and our mothers were indoctrinated with in the 1950s. “Serve this premade soup in a box. It will make your children smarter and you will be a happy mother.”

Susannah’s love and attention are physical ingredients in the food she prepares.

That’s one of the things I admire about her. Serving others is her duty.

She accepts that, and it actually makes her happy. What could be more important to do in life than to feed the ones we love?

Patti Bess is a local freelance writer. You can follow her on further eating adventures in Asia and India at besspatti.wordpress.com and click Follow.