Sponge-like patties, dhokla, have been steaming on Gujarati stoves for centuries. Made of fermented chickpea lentils and rice, they look like yellow diamonds on a plate.
Also for hundreds of years, but some 2000 kilometers (1300 miles) east – across the core lands of India – mothers and aunties by the muddy slopes of Ganges, in Bengal, have been frying another kind of savory cakes, dhoka. They are smaller and crispier than their northwestern resemblance. Bengalis dip them in curries instead of serving them as a side-dish, snack or breakfast. In addition to their likeness in etymology, dhokla and dhoka are also bound together by a common ingredient, chana-dal.
Consider chana-dal as lentil because it’s processed from hulled and split gram, or chola boot – the most popular chickpea variety growing in Indian subcontinent. Plump and meaty, chana-dal has higher fibre content than many lentils and it provides a valuable source of plant protein.
Now, take the shortest route from Kolkata to Helsinki via Pakistan, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Russia. Our cottage is an hour drive from the airport. Because there are similar country houses around, look for the one that carries off the fragrance of ghee, hing and kalonji along with the wood smoke. We have set the midday meal on the table, and it includes dhokar dalna. Hopefully you don’t mind sitting on the floor!
When your eyes meet a gravy-like main dish in which the sauce is fairly thin – that’s dalna. It usually has potatoes, either alone or with other absorbent vegetables like cauliflower or pumpkin. Tomatoes, yogurt, coconut milk, and different seed pastes may enrich the sauce. Whereas chenna dalna contains cheese patties, dhokar dalna comes with lentil cakes. Sometimes other legumes, like split peas, replace chana-dal; sometimes chickpea flour, or besan, plays the leading role.
Making dhoka is easy but there are few things to pay attention to. When grinding dal, use very little but enough water to reach a smooth consistency. If the mixture is too dry, the patties will crack when you fry them. Trust me; I’ve experienced that, too.
You could substitute kalonji seeds for dry-roasted jeera powder when making dhokar. In that case, throw them in at the same time with hing powder. I would probably omit kalonji seeds in the gravy then and, instead, sauté jeera seeds with ginger, tejpatta and hing.
For spicier dhokar dalna, supplement the recipe with green chilies. You can also mix finely grated ginger in the dal paste.
I’ll show you some other time how to prepare dhokla. You will then be able to decide whether you are Gujarati or Bengali at heart! I already know which one I am.
DHOKAR DALNA / BENGALI LENTIL CAKES IN POTATO & TOMATO GRAVY
Ingredients for the lentil cakes:
½ cup (125 ml) split gram (chana dal)
Water for soaking overnight
About 2 Tbsp water for grinding
1 Tbsp ghee or oil
A pinch of pure hing powder
A pinch of Himalayan salt
1 tsp jeera seeds, dry roasted and ground
Ingredients for the gravy:
2 – 3 Tbsp ghee or oil
1 Tbsp grated ginger (juice removed)
2 small tejpatta
Less than ¼ tsp pure hing powder
1 tsp kalonji seeds
2 medium size potatoes, peeled and cubed
2 medium size tomatoes, peeled and chopped
2 cups (500 ml) water
½ tsp cayenne powder
¼ tsp turmeric powder
1 tsp jeera seeds, dry roasted and ground
2 green cardamom seeds, lightly crushed (or ½ - 1 tsp powdered garam masala)
1 tsp Himalayan salt
Ingredients for frying the cakes:
Ghee or oil
Sort, wash and soak the dal in plenty of water for about 8 hours. Drain.
Add enough water to the dal to grind it in a spice mill or food processor (1 to 3 Tbsp).
Heat up the ghee or oil over moderate heat and sauté the hing powder for about 30 seconds and then scoop in the dal paste. Keep stirring it until it thickens for about 5 minutes. As it will stick to the bottom of the pan, keep stirring. It’s ready when it pulls away from the sides and forms a solid mass. Now add the roasted jeera powder and salt. Mix well and spread the paste in a buttered/oiled platter.Tap it into an even rectangle. When it cools down, cut it into mouth size diamond shapes or squares.
While the paste is cooling down, make the gravy. Heat up the ghee or oil in a pot. When it’s hot but not smoking, drop in the ginger paste and tejpatta. When the ginger turns a few shades darker, add the hing powder and kalonji seeds. Fry for 30 to 40 seconds and add the potato cubes. Keep frying them until they become golden and crispy. Mix the potatoes occasionally. Add the tomatoes and fry until they start to stick to the bottom of the pan, and the ghee or oil begins to separate from them. Now pour in the water and powdered spices, salt and cardamom seeds. Cook until the gravy thickens.Some of the potatoes may dissolve and some of them may retain the shape.
While the gravy is cooking, shallow-fry the lentil cakes in hot ghee or oil. Drain and add them to the gravy when it is somewhat thick. Remember that the cakes will absorb liquid; you may have to add some more water if the gravy dries up.
Remove the whole spices before serving.