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Simmering Langar Dal During COVID

This dal evoked another realization: I have Sikh ancestors.

I stared at a burnt pan full of darkened, inedible crisp gobhi this morning. I grappled with showing up to the kitchen daily not just for survival but for something else - something elusive and beyond grasp. We need to eat. I need to cook. To say that after four months of the sheltering life, I am burnt out by kitchen duties is to state the obvious.

It has been over four months since we went to a restaurant to enjoy our favorite crispy dosa or deep fried pakoras. The comfort foods of rainy or gloomy days are quite out of reach during these times of perpetual sheltering in place here in the United States. So many friends I know are baking, cooking and even pickling during our extended sheltering in place. They say it is a self-care practice. Others have time on their hands that they might previously have spent battling traffic jams on stressful commutes. I work from home and I homeschool. My children, now youth, both struggle with asthma and food allergies. If a handful of restaurants brought me much needed respite, even this break is elusive these days. I have not found much solace in the kitchen these days. The work of feeding the family with no respite from my own recipe repertoire is daunting on any given day.

There is no denying that I am burnt out. 

This week, I awoke to a CNN news alert that for the sixth consecutive day, the infection rates are hitting record highs in Georgia where I reside. This is the time of year when I would typically get a few days respite from the kitchen as we head for a summer beach getaway. I found myself wrangling with existential angst. There is no vacation and there is no breather this year. There is no local restaurant to visit where foods I do not cook in my own kitchen are served up as I catch my breath.

And then, I closed my eyes, and turned inwards to my craving.

I realized that I needed to prepare Langar (Sikh community kitchen) dal over steamed basmati rice. I even envisioned that a side of crispy bhindi masala would accompany the meal. My weary mind and fatigued body were loathe to fathom the effort such an undertaking would entail. I somehow approached the pantry, removed the urad split and chana dal, then pulled out the cumin, coriander, turmeric alongside fresh ginger and garlic. With muscle memory of sorts, I began rinsing the dal, preparing the fresh ingredients, and step by step, almost without mental effort, the dal came together.

I did not consult a recipe. I did not google the ingredients. 


A typical Langar plate with Dal, Rice, Roti, Vegetables, Pickle, Onions and Chillies

As I stirred the pot, and inhaled the fragrance of blooming spices, I realized that this Langar dal, as some call it Amritsari dal, is quite familiar. I grew up in Dar es Salaam attending weekly Langar at the Gurudwara with our adopted uncle, Deepa Singh. He lived with us though he was not a relative, but someone my father adopted as his younger brother. We were all far from Punjab and chosen kinships were the norm. Gurudwara visits are interwoven into my sometimes-spotty childhood memories.

This dal evoked another realization: I have Sikh ancestors.

I am not sure if Partition related traumas or subtle casteism is to account for why my ma never told me that her grandmother was a ‘Kaur’. I have yet to fully grasp the details, but I pieced this family history together a few months ago. When I consciously realized this, a lot of other things about my hyphenated identities and spiritual leanings began to make sense.

How the existential angst of COVID sheltering and kitchen time burnout led to my preparing Langar dal for my family with no written recipe or conscious memory of someone teaching me is a mystery.

Perhaps, ancestral knowledge of healing practices for trying times was activated in me.

The dal, prepared slightly modified for our non-dairy needs was indeed the soothing balm for extended isolation. Langar dal is eaten in community in a holy space. It is accompanied by rice and sometimes, ghee laden parathe. We have probably never craved to attend Langar more than during these socially distanced isolating times. Our hearts yearn for human connection and community in ways that Langar practices support our souls even as the dal nourishes our bellies. 

Langal Hall aka Community Kitchen serves all visitors with food irrespective of religion, caste, color or gender.

Indeed, as I have reflected previously, family recipes, for us refugee descended immigrants who have been displaced or uprooted, might not be passed down in writing or book form. They live on within us in our cravings, oddly derived rituals and comfort foods. These family recipes and rituals defy rationality and they are so very real. 

Why I rediscovered ancestral inner knowing and Langar dal during COVID times is no mystery after all. It has now been added to my regular recipe rotation, especially for days when I have all the cravings for comfort, a resurgence of cooking burnout and none of the motivation to show up to the kitchen.

I have begun to approach cooking with a knowledge deep within me that my ancestors await me here with inspiration to impart.

About the author

Dr. Gayatri Sethi is an educator and writer who muses about social justice themes. A former professor and academic advisor, she consults and teaches about global studies, social justice, anti-racism and decolonizing education. She is of South Asian descent, born in Tanzania and raised in Botswana. Some of her work has previously been published in Brown Girl Magazine, The Dissident Voice and the Aerogramme. Instagram: @desibookaunty  | Tweets: @gayatrisethi



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