It may not have the global reputation of Dal Makhani or the ancient connect of the Channa Dal (guguni), yet there is something endearing about Panchratna Dal (also called Panchmel Dal) that makes it one of the few lentil preparation that has a version for every state, well at least most of it.
If there is one ingredient with which Indian cuisine, and in that sense India, shares an umbilical-like connect, it has to be lentils or dals. History talks about dal recipes as old as the pre-Harappa culture, where lentils – of all kinds – were a staple food.
It was in the menu even before rice and wheat arrived in India and became an indispensable part of the Indian thali. In fact, the sheer fact that most of the dal tempering doesn’t have the culinary quintessential tomatoes indicates that dal existed during the earlier days of Ayurveda, and hence the oldest of the recipes in the Great Indian Cookbook. A fact seconded by old texts that often speak about simple recipes of dal that was served to guests as a celebratory meal. Like in the Helen of Troy and Chadragupta Maurya wedding back in 303 BC. It’s believed that a special kind of channa dal was prepared to mark the auspicious occasion. The recipe that was deemed as a culinary masterpiece among others like Malpua (Yes, it is that old!) and Patala (which is the first iteration of the gajjak) for the burst of flavours each spoon delivered was Guguni – a lentil preparation that is still prevalent in East India and can be often found being sold in street side shops as part of the morning breakfast.
The dish was described as follows: Bengal gram soaked overnight with turmeric and coriander, boiled with cold pressed mustard oil, cumin, crushed pepper, ground ginger, bay leaf and cardamom, topped with sliced onions and cooked on dum on low heat.
For the modern day culinary mind this may not come across as something exceptional, albeit thoughts may differ, back then it did trend set two things: first the dum cooking technique that saw a full revival under the Mughal dynasty. And two, it rose Bengal gram or channa dal to the stature of the queens of dal. So much so that in years to follow, serving any other dal except channa was considered suicidal. This was the image that the advent of Panchmel or Panchratna dal helped change with its unique flavour foreplay.
When did the panchmel dal come into the culinary scene is a fact that is hard to ascertain, as little is known about the origin of this lentil preparation.
However, many believe that the first mention of the panchratna dal was in Mahabharata. It is said that it was one of the preparations that Kunti and thereafter Draupadi, would prepare as amendment to the elaborate royal cuisine, and also to fulfill the Pandavas need of nutrition, during their exile. Folklores down East India talk about how Bhim after accidentally making the aviyal in King Virat’s royal kitchen also created the first panchratna dal by boiling all the five dals in a pot and garnishing it with a good amount of ghee. Interestingly, it was Bhim, who when asked what he made, called his dish ‘pantchratna’ or five gems, which was befitting as dal in ancient India was considered an important ingredient of every kitchen.
Whether Bhim really made the first panchratna dal or not can be a topic of another debate, but by the medieval times, the Indian culinary world had progressed to combining two to three dals together. One of the finest examples of the same is the kali dal that went on to take the shape of Dal Makhani under the expertise of Kundal Lal Gujral, who also invented the famous Butter Chicken. The real Panchmel dal first came into limelight from the Mewar Gharana, where it was introduced more out of the need to have a subtle flavour to balance the fiery flavours that were dominating the table. It was also the recipe that went beautifully with the use of curd and buttermilk. Such was the interest in this tomato-less yet flavouful lentil that it was one of the few dishes that was introduced into Akbar’s court from Jodha Bai’s kitchen that introduced many a vegetarian dishes into the predominantly non-vegetarian dining area.
The use of five different lentils aside, what gave panchmel dal, which was named due to the use of five different dal, is the nice smokey flavour that the spices tempered in ghee imparted to the dish. The marriage of the lentils and spices was such a hit that by the time Shah Jehan took over the throne, the Mughal court had a Shahi Panchmel Dal recipe that had become a month feature, and was often demanded by Aurangzeb, who being a strict vegetarian, fancied the dish more than roast meat, which was a favourite with Babar and Akbar.
Many believe that much like the dalma and aviyal that were results of a wife/cook’s ingenuity to create something interesting from limited/leftover food, panchmel dal was the necessity of creating something new for the royal meal every day. The dal, while being high on flavour, did allow immense scope for the khansamas to work around. Tempering for instance could make a lot of difference as to how the dal would taste. So they could use a series of combination to create a new dish the next time. And two, the combination of dals ensured that the dal wasn’t presented the same way at any time.
This may explain why even after all these years, tomato isn’t a part of the recipe that uses subtle flavour spices and relies heavily on clarified butter or ghee to do the trick. Understandably then this could have been a reason why the simple dal was picked up by the homemakers across India, and each household had its very own Pachratna Dal, which was slow cooked and extremely flavourful.
In fact, India currently has over 9 different varieties of Panchmel dal that is identified by the way it is tempered – which is still with ghee and no tomatoes.