On and off during my childhood, I lived in a multi-generational, Asian-American household. My paternal grandparents, who became US citizens in the 1970s, traveled back and forth between New Jersey where I lived, and Pune, their hometown in western India. They stayed with my family for long periods of time. With my paternal grandmother, who I call “Mama,” I watched both “General Hospital” and “Sesame Street,” and fell asleep by her side, wrapped in her soft, threadbare, brown shawl. On weekends, Mama made hearty Sindhi breakfasts like loli, a jaggery-filled whole-wheat flatbread that she sprinkled with sugar for me; seyal maani, day-old chapatis (whole-wheat flatbreads) or stale bread sautéed in a piquant tomato-and-onion mixture; and saiyoon, sweet vermicelli with fried potatoes, served with papadam and pickled mangoes. I recoiled from many of these breakfasts—saiyoon, especially—and usually took just a bite, before returning to my buttered toast or soggy egg.
My only favorite was pakwan dal, a treat served on rare Sundays. “This is the king of breakfasts,” Mama explained. She lovingly fried the pakwan, a caraway-seed-flecked, deep-fried, crispy flatbread, and simmered and stirred the nutty dal, a slightly sour lentil stew seasoned with tamarind pulp. She served the pakwan and dal with two chutneys—fiery mint and sweet date-and-jaggery—along with sliced, raw onions. Pakwan dal is a melange of flavors and textures. I loved the sweet, sticky chutney and stirred it into the creamy dal before scooping it up with the crunchy pakwan.
Years later, as an adult, I embrace a cuisine whose secrets have been long kept in the kitchens of a community-dispersed Partition, which cleaved the Subcontinent. I wonder why it’s so difficult to find a Sindhi cookbook in the United States. I venture to Mumbai’s Sindhi enclaves, Chembur and Ulhasnagar, when on holiday in India. I explore their sweet shops and street carts, and eat at Guru Kripa, the oldest eatery in Sion, which serves simple Sindhi meals—including my now-beloved pakwan dal. In Singapore and New York City, cities in which I have lived, I return again and again to Kailash Parbat, branches of an international chain whose Sunday menu carries Sindhi delicacies. Here, the pakwan is flavored with sharp and slightly bitter carom seeds—a more traditional preparation of the flatbread.
When trying to recreate the recipes of my ancestral cuisine in my kitchen, I realize how utilitarian these breakfast meals were. They used ingredients commonly found in a family’s pantry, and made excellent use of leftovers. I make a stack of four pakwan and a bowl of mild dal (omitting the chiles) for my five-year-old daughter. She takes a few bites of the pakwan. “This is crispy,” she says. She calls me “Mama.”
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon coarsely-ground black peppercorns
1/2 teaspoon caraway seeds
2 tablespoons ghee (clarified butter)
Vegetable oil (for deep-frying)
1 cup dried split chickpeas
2 tablespoons ghee (clarified butter)
2 medium onions, finely chopped
1 teaspoon ginger, minced
1 teaspoon garlic, minced
4 green chiles, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder
1/2 tablespoon cumin powder
1/2 tablespoon coriander powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 large tomato, blanched, peeled, and diced
4 tablespoons tamarind pulp
1 tablespoon ghee
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
2 tablespoons chopped coriander leaves
How to Make It
Sift together flour, salt, and spices. Fold in ghee.
Add water to form a pliable dough. Divide dough into four, and roll each portion into a 6” round. Prick each round with a fork to prevent them from puffing up while frying.
Over high heat, bring oil to 320°F. Fry, one at a time, until crisp and golden.
Soak lentils for 1–2 hours. Drain and rinse.
Heat ghee in a heavy-bottomed pan over medium flame. Saute onions, ginger, garlic, and chilies for ten minutes, or until onions are translucent.
Add lentils and spices (turmeric powder, cumin powder, coriander powder, asafoetida, and salt) and 2 ½ cups water. Bring to a boil. Reduce flame to low and simmer for 30 minutes, or until lentils are soft.
Add tomato and tamarind pulp and cook for an additional five to ten minutes. Remove from heat.
In a small pan over a low flame, heat ghee. Add cumin seeds. They will splutter! When they stop, pour tempering mixture into lentils.