x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

The mysterious secret ingredient in my mum's dhal

The madeleine Mum's signature Pakistani dish takes on some English influence.

My parents were both born in Pakistan. They moved to England in the early 1970s and I was born there shortly afterwards. Because of my dad's job, we had to leave when I was eight years old, and we moved around pretty frequently after that until I was old enough to return to England for university. In the interim, we lived in Germany, France, Oman and Abu Dhabi (which is where I live now). Every place we lived in, we took a recipe or two with us. But nothing ever came close to my mum's dhal.

When we first settled in Cologne I couldn't stand some of the food. I eventually fell in love with a lot of the local delicacies (especially Rhineland sauerbraten, a dish of beef marinated in vinegar with raisins and cloves, then braised) but in the early days I would cry and perform every time my parents came home with something different. Most of the time they would persist in getting me to try new things, but if I was being particularly rebellious, there was only one thing they could get me to eat.

My mum's tadka dhal recipe is famous in our family. She got it from her mother and grandmother, but while her sisters (my aunts) all got the same recipe, my mum's was always the best. She's not protective about it, if you ask her how to make it she won't hesitate to tell you. But there's something different about the way she does it. We all joke that she uses a top-secret ingredient. Mum just sits there with this little smile on her face. "I don't know what you're talking about," she always says.

I've tried to make it hundreds of times, but I've always wondered what goes into it to give it that rich smoky flavour. I know she uses "hing", or asafoetida, to give it the flavour of caramelised onions. She uses cumin seeds, fenugreek, coriander, garam masala - everything you'd expect to make a tadka dhal, in fact. So whenever I try to make it I try out little experiments. I've used pomegranate, but it's too sweet. I've even tried dried mangoes and extra ginger, but they just don't do it justice.

The last time I went to visit my parents, my dad answered the door. "Your mother's in the kitchen, cooking her dhal," he said with a wink. I smiled, put my finger to my lips and quietly tiptoed into the kitchen. There was mum, stirring her famous dhal on the stove, surrounded by packets, pots and jars of spices, lentils, garlic and herbs. In the midst of it all there was a bottle of HP sauce. "HP Sauce?" I gasped in mock horror "Mummy, how could you?"

"I don't know what you're talking about," she said. As told to James Brennan