A common misconception about lentils is that they are rich in proteins. In fact, 100 g of the much-maligned maida (which is more or less similar to the all-purpose flour of the West) has about the same amount of protein as 100 g of cooked toor dal. But, to be fair, lentils are packed with way more nutrients and also have the advantage of harder-to-digest carbohydrates, which makes them a good source of plant-based protein. And there are legumes richer in protein than toor dal. Fun fact: Two of the hard-to-digest carbohydrates in legumes like kidney beans (rajma)—raffinose and stachyose—cannot be digested by our digestive systems efficiently and, thus, become food for the bacteria in our guts. They metabolize these carbohydrates and produce gas, causing a rather familiar discomfort and occasional wind production. Turns out, eating fart-producing beans is not a bad idea at all because it encourages the growth of a diverse colony of healthy gut bacteria, who are, in general, excellent tenants.
Some lentils can be hard to cook and require a fair amount of time. Soaking reduces cooking time significantly. Though soaking does technically leach some flavour into the water, the difference is largely imperceptible because we tend to add a ton of extra flavour using spices.
Pressure-cooking also helps to shave off cooking times by almost 50 per cent. One of the hardest legumes to cook, the chickpea (chana), can be cooked to perfect softness if you add a pinch of baking soda to the pressure cooker. Baking soda (see Chapter 5) breaks down pectin, the hard substance that holds the plant’s cell walls together, and accelerates the cooking of chickpeas (or any other legume for that matter). As always, our knowledgeable grandmothers will also throw in a teabag into the pressure cooker when making chana. They might tell you that it’s meant to impart a lovely dark brown colour to the pale white chana, but the more useful, non-cosmetic purpose is to neutralize all the unused baking soda, which has a nasty, bitter and soapy aftertaste. Tea, as we will learn in Chapter 4, is an acid, while baking soda is basic. Acids and bases tend to react and neutralize each other.
Another minor annoyance when cooking dal is the foam it produces in the pressure cooker, which makes it hard to clean the lid afterwards. A teaspoon of oil added to the water in the pressure cooker will significantly reduce foaming when cooking legumes.
Urad dal in particular plays a big role in south Indian cooking. Lactobacteria on the surface of the dal and rice will, in the presence of water, cause fermentation, a behaviour exploited to make idlis, dosas and other lip-smacking items.
Given that the weather is warm and humid all through the year in south India, fermentation is largely predictable and controllable.
Science of Wheat
Now we have rice and dal out of the way, let’s consider the other staple carbohydrate: wheat. The original grain that made large-scale human civilization possible, wheat (like rice, corn and sugarcane) is a grass, making the grass family of plants one of the most successful species on the planet. Whether we have domesticated these grasses, or they have deviously convinced human beings to stay addicted to carbohydrates and, thus, grow them on a massive scale, at the cost of other plants, is a question worth pondering over when you mix atta and water and let it sit for 30 minutes. If you aren’t doing autolysis, which is what this step is called, you are skipping the single biggest science trick when it comes to making the perfect chapatti, or a paratha, naan or kulcha for that matter.
The Indian subcontinent mostly uses two kinds of wheat flours: maida, which is made just from the endosperm, and atta, which includes a little bit of the bran. This is unlike the more ‘wheaty’ parts of the world—the Middle East, Europe and North America—where there is a cornucopia of variations based on the variety of wheat, how much of the bran is used to make the flour and how finely it has been ground. Of late, because urban Indians seem to have rediscovered millets, there has been an explosion of both gluten-free flours and wheat flours ‘enriched’ with millet flours.
The milling process (in a chakki, which is a set of two millstones used to grind grain into flour) used to make atta causes a fair bit of damage to the proteins and starches in the flour, which makes atta not an ideal flour to bake leavened bread. A loaf of bread baked with atta tends to be dense and crumbly, and not soft and airy like it is if you use the whole wheat flour available outside India. This is also why leavened breads, such as naan and kulcha, tend to use maida, which is not made using the stone-grinding process and, thus, has better gluten development when leavened. If you want to make a whole wheat loaf of bread in India, your best bet is to use 70 per cent maida and 30 per cent atta for the best results.
Here is what happens when you add water to atta or maida. There are two proteins in wheat—glutenin and gliadin—that form a stretchy and elastic structure called gluten, which traps air to create give your finished bread a light and airy texture. Maida forms stronger gluten structures than chakki- ground atta, which is why chapattis made of maida are chewier than those made using atta. Gluten formation in a chapatti is focused on creating a soft, yet not overly chewy, superstructure. But in a loaf of bread, gluten formation is focused on making a strong structure that is able to handle the expanding gas generated by the yeast in the dough, finally turning it into a crisp brown crust at high heat in the oven, thanks to the Maillard reaction.
This excerpt from ‘Masala Lab: The Science of Indian Cooking’ by Krish Ashok has been published with permission from Penguin Random House India.