I’m so in love with squashes. They’re so sculptural, and so giving as a vegetable. For me, following my anti-inflammatory diet and avoiding nightshade fruit and veg, they’re especially important to my happiness. But it’s the way they look that I love more than anything I think.
I lived in the city, Salford and Manchester, for a long time. Living in the inner city can be very ugly, in so many ways. There’s so much litter, so much deprivation, concrete, so many cars, fumes, roundabouts and tower blocks. So many strangers living on top of each other. So much ever-building pressure. Where we lived in Salford there was also a lot of green, beautiful woods and a river with kingfishers, a space so often unrecognised as belonging to the city. But the experience of living there was in many ways tough, and after many years of feeling very detached, feeling I did not belong, trapped within all the stress and serious health problems I had, I came to be at one with it.
Manchester and Salford, adjoined, are post-industrial cities, full of old red-brick factory buildings and interesting structures, thick with a past so different from the present. Now old meets new, spaces crammed with modern architecture and new design, both crass and intelligently stylish. The cities have a distinct character, unlike anywhere else, as do the people with roots there. Life has been hard in such industrial cities. An outsider, I started to feel love for the place seep into me. I had learned and felt its history, its energy, its reality, the human stories. A long time suppressed, I came to unleash my creativity and came to thrive visually as an artist on the abstract shapes, lights, textures and colours of the city. I felt often, even amidst so much stress, I could never be unhappy, or unstimulated for long because I saw beauty everywhere, in everything, everything was inspiration for a painting, or a photo.
And then we moved, to the wild natural beauty of the Peak District, a place where I could truly be alive, breathe the fresh air and feel myself, which gave us a better life, and a chance at some peace and health, which the city could not offer. And living here is a wonderful dream in so many ways. But when I go back to the city I am still so stimulated by the shapes of the buildings, by industrial shapes. My creative writing is mostly futuristic, quite dystopian; the urban environment captures my imagination as I lived in that world for so long. The city opened my eyes just that bit wider to how beautiful the world is, amidst its ugliness. And so, after marveling at the rich texture of rusty iron and the patterns of the mechanics of train stations, absorbed in brutal abstractions of shape, at the shades of grey on the city pavements, the form of a squash, or indeed any fruit or vegetable, seems truly divine; they are just such perfect, radiant creations, and I am so glad that I can see them that way. They shine.
This squash daal dish was born from a recent moment of culinary inspiration, when I reached for a jar of tamarind concentrate paste that was languishing, neglected, at the back of the jar and bottle cupboard, (a space akin to the wardrobe portal to Narnia, an exotic, Other place that’s there but rarely recognised as such… it is, after all, a world of endless possibility…)…
… the tamarind… (picture girl twizzling slowly back to the surface of the earth like a sycamore seed, or should that be snowflake…), it had been left, because on buying it last year I tried it, as it is, in the jar, and thought it tasted odd, perhaps compared to the block of tamarind with stones intact I’d had some time before, which I think is superior, but mostly because it isn’t meant to be eaten by itself! I was thinking about what I needed to pair with my newest creation, a roast kuri (kabocha) squash daal, and thought I’d experiment and make a home-made tamarind chutney, which was all in all so much fun to do and it felt so creative creating the curry dish as a whole. It was in fact such a success that Dan and I had it for breakfast, (in truly cross-cultural, open-minded style, round of applause please), which was in itself some kind of miracle as Dan has very set ideas of what he likes for breakfast. I was elated!
The squash daal is light and fruity. I love pairing the rich flavour of roast squash with lemon, which cuts through and lifts the dish, and the red lentil, black salt and spices earth and ground. Usually in a daal I’d just season with cumin, lemon, salt and black pepper, but the lighter, spicier garam masala is just delicious, and lifted further by the added ground coriander, such a fragrant spice. The daal with a chickpea pancake, coconut raita, and fresh coriander (cilantro) create a light meal, and a slice of still warm from the pan beetroot in lemon juice and sea salt was the perfect accompaniment, adding freshness, intense goodness, and such a beautiful dimension of colour against the orange of the daal.
- Medium sized red kuri squash (kabocha), or other orange variety such as butternut should work well too
- 1/2 medium sized onion
- 1/2 cup red lentils
- 1 heaped tsp garam masala
- 1 heaped tsp ground coriander seed
- 1 tsp finely ground black pepper
- 1 1/4 cup (I use filtered) water, plus water from squash
- 2 large pinches of black salt (sanchal)
- 2 large pinches of sea salt, to taste
- juice of one lemon (or to taste)
- tsp/ drizzle of agave syrup, or equivalent
- drizzle of oil, light olive oil or the coconut oil equivalent (I use mild)
Cut the squash in half, de-seed and score. Rub some salt and oil on the surface and put in a hot oven - I put water in with the squash so it doesn't burn, in the baking tray or in an ovenproof ceramic dish. Leave to cook for approx 20 mins or until softened.
Gently brown the spices in a medium hot pan with some of the oil, being careful not to burn and then remove from pan. Finely chop the onion and saute with the oil on a low heat with the lid on for 10 mins or so until browning and translucent. Add the lentils and water, bring to the boil and simmer on a low heat with the lid on for approx 20 mins, stirring several times as lentils can stick, depending on the thickness of your pan especially.
Scrape the squash flesh from the skin and puree with all the ingredients, including the cooked lentils if you want a smooth mixture - I add the lentils after blending as I like the texture but it is entirely up to you, both are delicious. Add a little water to loosen if need, but some should have collected in the squash so use that too. If the mixture is too thin, or if you'd specifically like to eat it as a spread, reduce further on the heat, and if you'd like it looser, add more liquid and adjust the seasoning to taste.
Lovely eaten straight away, and even better kept for a few hours or more, when the spices and flavour really develop.
If you reduce the daal down it makes a delicious spiced lentil pate (sorry, can't find the accent please excuse this quite funny mis-spelling!!).
I used a red kuri squash (kabocha), but you could use any red or orange variety, experiment!
The daal keeps well in the fridge and freezes well too. As with most spiced foods it improved with time and can be beautifully refreshed with a squeeze of lemon or lime.
I’ve been listening to… Mbongwana Star Malukayi (feat. Konono No.1)
I’ve been watching… the Borgias
I’m still reading… Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina