Sunday, February 6, 2011

red lentil dahl; a Hawaiian story

In the fall of 2002 I stepped off an airplane into the palm and pineapple humidity of the tropical paradise known as Hawaii. I was swimming through the groggy delirium of a summer spent on the road, followed by a sleepless night waiting in line for a stand-by seat at the Oakland airport.  I was twenty-two years old and felt like the world was out there lying in wait for my arrival.  I wanted to consume it.

The previous three and a half months had been spent touring the mainland by car with my best friends in the world.  We hiked in national parks, danced at music festivals, and skinny dipped in whatever lake, river or stream happened to be in the vicinity.  Each morning began with an exodus from our sleeping bags, followed by the random navigational decisions that guided our journey.  We were drawn to the green and blue on our maps that represented the great expanses of trees and water we yearned to explore.  We crisscrossed our way across the country, living every second of our lives and basking in our exemption from the perceived afflictions of employment and rent.

By the time my rugged sandals hit sand on the island of Maui, I felt a sense of freedom that I have yet to replicate, and may never again.  I felt the warm hands of the Pacific embrace me and carry away all burdens of time and space.  I had only the pack on my back to weigh me down.  

My presumed two month Hawaiian holiday stretched, in the end, to a 14 month odyssey of sun and sea-soaked immersion into the otherwordly, tropical jungle of enchantment and wonder that is this culture of fiery mana.  So many memories were composed in that relatively short amount of time...  as if an entire volume in the encyclopedia of my life was penned in just that one year.  Letter H, for Hawaii, or perhaps letter D, for discovery.

Now, when I'm asked what "Hawaii is like", I find it difficult to come up with a straight answer.  It was so much like a million different things, I can hardly abbreviate my experience into the guise of small talk.  Hawaii is like a sunset that burns the sky with its blaze of color as naked devotees writhe to the beats of palms striking taut animal skins in rhythmic worship of another day's end.  Hawaii is bonfires, beaches and copious amounts of booze.  Hawaii is also living off the land, solar showers in the banana grove, eating the harvest, swinging machetes, and coconut water dripping from the chin in the heat of the noonday sun.  It is salty skin, and it is sea turtles, diving through the Pacific beneath my mermaid-self, snorkel-masked and bikini-clad.

Hawaii is the ocean;  the predictable pulse of the waves and the tides, the glassy stillness at sunrise and the murky mire after the rainfall.  All of these things, plus innumerable more are Hawaii.  You might tire of my waterfall, cliff jumping, jungle adventures if I continue my list any further.

Remembering, reviving that time in my mind as I gaze out at this NW haze of cold and rain brings a buzz into my body.  A giddy vibration, a remnant of adventure and aliveness that still lingers after so many years have sought to erase the sensation from my being.

There are some things that still trigger a rush of Hawaii for me.  Things that take me back to that archipelago in the Pacific.  Jack Johnson and VW vans, for instance, elicit thoughts of roadtrips and camping; friends crammed in together with an exploration soundtrack. Practically any tropical fruit reminds me of plywood, tin-roofed shacks and life on an orchard; rambutans, jackfruit, breadfruit, durian, sapote - all foods that I labored to produce for market and for our bellies.  Macadamia nuts lead me back to the trial and error of crushing impossibly hard shells between rocks in hope of savoring the white nutmeat within. Ginger, about days in the fields, pulling rooted hands from their grips in the soil so mainlanders might taste their spicy flesh.

It's definitely the food, the abundance of edible things on roadsides and backyards that I associate most with Hawaii.  Collecting mangos in the morning for pancakes and pulling over when the guavas were ripe.  A tropical candy store.

There is another, however unlikely, food that instantly transports me to my former life on the islands. It is a tiny legume, the red lentil.

It doesn't grow in Hawaii, that I know of.  The Hawaiians don't use it in their meat-centric cuisine, but my meals there became permeated with red lentils in the form of dahl.  This Asian dish was introduced to me by my then partner, a native of Kathmandu, Nepal, who's singular culinary specialty seemed to be dahl..  Nearly every evening for the last couple of months we spent on the Big Island, we set up our makeshift kitchen near the open hatch of the Volvo station wagon we called our home.  Our saucepan perched on the flame of our single burner Coleman as onions were sauteed with garlic and tomatoes, and lentils were simmered down to make our meal.  We ate our dahl with rice, of course, as the sky flushed shades of red with the setting sun.

Somehow we never tired of our red lentil soup. Maybe it was a complete sense of serenity brought on by island life, or, more likely, our surrender to the necessity of inexpensive eats.

If I close my eyes tightly, I can still recall the lullaby of the ocean lapping the shore; sung to us nightly as we drifted off to our dreams.  

Red Lentil Dahl
serves 3-4

olive oil
1/2 medium onion, diced
2 large cloves garlic, minced
1 T. fresh ginger, peeled and grated
1/2 tsp. turmeric
1/2 tsp. coriander
1 tsp. cumin
1/2 tsp. garam masala
1/4+ tsp. cayenne pepper
1 C. red lentils, rinsed
2 1/2 C. vegetable broth
juice of half a lemon
salt to taste
plain yogurt, optional
chopped green onion, optional

  • Heat the olive oil in a large sauce pan or pot over medium heat.  Add the onion, and saute for several minutes until they begin to soften.  Add the garlic and ginger, and continue to cook, stirring often, for a few more minutes.
  • Add the turmeric, cumin, coriander, garam masala, and cayenne pepper to the pot, and stir.  Cook another couple of minutes.
  • Add the lentils and vegetable broth, and raise the heat to medium-high.  Once the soup comes to a boil, reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, partially covered.  Continue to simmer and stir occasionally until the lentils are tender, roughly 15 minutes.  If the soup seems too thick, add a little water until desired consistency is reached.  Taste and season with salt, if necessary.
  • Squeeze the lemon into the soup, stir, and remove from heat.  Ladle into bowls and garnish with yogurt and green onions, if desired.  Enjoy!
This dahl recipe is different than the one I ate so regularly in Hawaii, but the flavor is still loaded with nostalgia.  Aloha nui loa!


  1. Vibrant daal and beautiful clicks.......! This is our staple diet, will surely try your version of the recipe.

  2. I think I could eat this all day long, because I love such delicious looking things :)

  3. Lovely photos! Please share with us over at!

  4. Thanks for reminding me how much I love lentils. I always seem to forget about them. I would love to have some in Hawaii right now! Winter is getting a little long here.

  5. Beautiful post and beautiful presentation. I am a big fan of lentils and enjoy them very much. These look wonderful.
    You have a very nice blog!

  6. Tis dahl looks delicious...I have never been to Hawaii, but you have made it sound heavenly :)

  7. Love Hawaii and especially love Maui, which made me feel all warm and happy inside reading your post. What an amazing experience you had, and thank you so much for so eloquently sharing it with us! :) And now, I have to try dahl.

  8. This dahl is DELICIOUS. I can't stop making it, it is extremely simple and fast to make. I added fresh coriander leaves at the end, it completed the recipe very well.

  9. Marie, I'm so glad you're enjoying it. Thanks for the feedback!

  10. This was great. Had all the ingredients at home, was super easy to make, served over basmati rice. Didn't care for the yogurt with it, but it's great on it's own. Thanks for sharing.


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