Giving Dal Its Due

On the long history of the lentil in South Asian motherlands and its resonance during the pandemic.

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A thali of dals (Lai Yuching)

Sarah Thankam Mathews


June 5, 2020


12 min

At the end of February, I was watching the COVID-19 news coming out of China and Italy, and decided to build a little stockpile of nonperishable food in one cabinet of my Brooklyn kitchen — just in case.

I was needlessly apologetic about this project, the most self-conscious of disaster preppers. 2020 is bringing out my paranoia, I texted my friend, but am sure all will be chill. Things began to stack up in my cabinet. Cans of corn, carrots, tomatoes, and green beans. Small sacks of rice, both basmati and Keralite red matta — the latter is a royal pain to cook but a single bite takes me back to the motherland in seconds. Tomato paste and shallots for that one Alison Roman dish everyone was talking about, chicken and veggie bouillon, onions, pasta, atta. Smoked tuna, packed tuna in oil, albacore tuna in water. And dal, less from deep fondness than the pragmatic knowledge that it would keep well. Olive-hued moong, red masoor, yellow chana: SWAD brand sachets of these filled the gaps between the stacks of cans, Tetris style. 

Months later, I no longer feel like all is or will be chill. I hope to never again in my life look at green beans from a tin. I would like to launch my still-tall stack of tuna cans into space. But it was the pulses that I ran through bags of, that I needed to restock. I fell deeply in love. After a period of lentil hatred as a child, I’d always liked dal as a side but was never truly enthusiastic about it until this year. Before, I bought dal’s singles but never its albums. Now, it has become my quarantine comfort food of choice. 

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