My husband was never interested in cooking. In food, yes but not in how it got on his plate. But he would compensate by making countless cups of tea, an occasional fried egg, doing the dishes and trips to the grocery store, on demand, sometimes for just one or two things. For many years, it continued like this, till he had to live for close to a year in a foreign country where meat and potatoes ruled the roost. Being a meat lover, he was confident that his diet was taken care of, no problem. But, before he knew it, he was craving his daily dal, rice and vegetables. Despite being meat lovers, like most Indian families, our diet is primarily composed of vegetables, lentils and beans and rice or rotis and fresh yoghurt. Freezing winter days and one too many meals of bread, sausages and cheese finally pushed him into the kitchen to try his hand at cooking a simple Indian meal. I remember writing a flurry of emails full of extra detailed recipes with highlighted lines reminding him to, “Wash the dal, rice and vegetables before you cook them” and “ Make sure you don’t drain the rice along with the water!”. But by far, the most challenging part was getting him to identify the dals (lentils) by their names. Arhar, masoor, moong, urad… Every time I mentioned one, he would say, “the yellow one or the pink one?” Now, Indians eat a variety of lentils that are pink, green, white and black, not to mention at least 3 yellow ones. Most of us know the names but yes, there are people who still say yellow dal. We put turmeric in our pink(masoor) lentils and they appear yellow when cooked, so let me just clarify that that ‘yellow dal’ is not helpful when trying to shop for lentils. My hungry husband did finally manage to get the names right and has since then taken his culinary abilities to a higher level.
Anyway, the point I’m trying to make is that you can’t deprive an Indian of his daily dal. They’re quite wonderful actually, because they provide all the protein that the large number of vegetarians in India need without having to touch meat. Lentils are extremely versatile. We boil and temper them to make an array of everyday dals (stews/soups eaten with rice or rotis), grind them into batter to make pancakes and fritters, sprout them to make salads and snacks, cook them with rice to make porridge-like khichris and even use them in desserts and sweetmeats.
This post is about showcasing lentils, as you may guessed by now. Handvo – a dish from Gujarat in the western part of India is an excellent dish to do this. Simply explained, handvo is a savoury lentil and vegetable cake, eaten usually at tea time and sometimes even for breakfast. I think it makes an excellent brunch dish and is something you can make it in large quantities for potlucks and picnics. It comprises 3 or 4 varieties of dal, rice flour, vegetables and yoghurt, all seasoned with a few spices and baked in the oven. Handvo is baked in flat tins or trays (cake tins work superbly) but the last few times I’ve made them in cast iron skillet and the extra golden crispness that the cast iron imparts is delightful. It’s just like baking cornbread. I heated the pan with a little oil, in the oven while it was preheating; so when I pour in the handvo batter, there’s an ear-pleasing sizzle.
The batter has to ferment overnight. To help it do that, use soured yoghurt. To give your yoghurt that extra sourness, simply leave it out of the refrigerator for 5-6 hours before you plan to use it. Traditionally, bottlegourds/calabashes are used, but carrots, peas, zucchini or any other vegetable that you fancy can be used. Also, in the last 10 minutes of browning the top, be careful so that the sesame and mustard tempering does not burn. Some ovens that are quick to heat may brown the handvo faster. Once cooked, turn it out onto a wire rack or plate and allow it to cool down for 30 minutes before you slice it. Handvo can be eaten warm or at room temperature.
Handvo - Savoury Lentil Cake
- 150 g rice flour
- 50 g arhar or toor dal split pigeon peas
- 50 g chana dal split Bengal gram
- 50 g yellow moong dal hulled green gram or yellow mung
- 150 g plain yogurt beaten
- 1 tbsp green chilli paste
- 2 tsp ginger paste
- 150 g carrot grated
- 150 g bottlegourd or calabash/zucchini grated and squeezed to remove extra water
- 1 tsp red chilli powder
- ½ tsp turmeric powder
- 2 tsp sugar
- 1 ½ tsp soda bicarbonate
- 2 tbsp white sesame seeds
- 1 tsp black mustard seeds
- ¼ tsp hing asafoetida
- 6-7 curry leaves
- Salt to taste
- 3 tbsp any vegetable oil
- Wash and soak the dals in plenty of water for at least 5 hours. Drain well and grind the dals with the yoghurt to a smooth, batter-like consistency in a food processor. Try not to use any water to loosen the mixture while grinding.
- Pour the mixture into a large bowl and mix in the rice flour, chilli powder, turmeric powder, chilli and ginger pastes, grated vegetables, sugar and salt till no lumps remain.
- Heat 1 tbsp oil in a pan till quite hot. Add the curry leaves, turn off the heat, pour into the batter and mix well.
- Cover and leave the batter to ferment overnight or for 6-7 hours.
- Preheat the oven to 180 ℃ and while the oven is heating, pour 2 tbsps oil to coat the bottom of a cast iron skillet, and leave it to heat in the oven.
- Gently mix in the soda bicarb into the batter taking care not to overmix.
- Once the oven is hot, carefully remove the heated cast iron pan from the oven and pour in the batter and bake for35-40 mins. When the handvo has baked for about 25 mins, heat the remaining oil in a pan and crackle the mustard and sesame seeds. Pour this over the almost-done handvo and brown at 200 ℃ for a further 5 -10 minutes till the top is golden and you get a clean toothpick.