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Madhavi Tandon was perusing the shelves of King Soopers at the start of the pandemic when she stumbled upon a small jar of ghee, an Indian butter made from cultured cream. “I was blown away,” Tandon says. “Who is eating this ghee here?”
Tandon moved to Colorado from Pune, India more than 20 years ago, and the small discovery indicated to Tandon how Indian cuisine is becoming more mainstream for the average Colorado consumer. Her next thought: “I should [make ghee] because I am sure I have been making ghee longer than King Soopers,” Tandon says.
In 2020, Tandon launched Maia Foods, which offers prepackaged Indian meal kits and homemade ghee, biscotti, and spice blends for sale at Ruby’s Market in Platt Park and other local outlets.The chef is a professor of education at the University of Colorado Denver—and Maia Foods, she feels, is an extension of her work in the classroom.
“Food is a platform for claiming your heritage and history,” Tandon says. “Although Starbucks is making turmeric lattes, there is a space for somebody like me to claim my own platform to talk about food culture, because it’s not just food; there is a story here.”
The story of Tandon’s cooking began amongst the women of her family, where every night in a kitchen in western India, they would gather to share stories, burdens of their day, and prepare a meal. Today, Tandon lives in Aurora, thousands of miles away from Maharashtra, where she grew up—but the professor, business owner, and mother uses the recipes and techniques she inherited from the matriarchs of her family to bridge the gap between her home abroad and the one in Colorado.
Most importantly, though, she started cooking to feed her two daughters, who are now both in their 20s. “Growing up here, my daughters ate all kinds of food, but this grounds them—what we had tonight, the dhaba dal, it grounds them,” Tandon says. “It keeps family alive for them.”
5280 went behind the scenes in Tandon’s home, where she shared the significance of dhaba dal, a meal made with pigeon peas, split moong dal, and split red lentils that she makes every time her daughters return home. Dal, which is a term meaning “lentils” in Hindi, is a staple in Indian kitchens. Here, a look into Tandon’s process and the recipe behind the light and flavorful dish that reminds Tandon of home.
Shop for all of the ingredients for the dal at Tandon’s favorite Indian Market, Bombay Bazaar. The dish can be made with an Instant Pot or pressure cooker.
1/2 cup yellow split pigeon peas (arhar or toor in Hindi)
1/2 cup split and skinned red lentils (masoor dal in Hindi)
1/4 cup split and skinned green gram (moong or mung dal in Hindi)
Pinch of asafoetida powder (dried sap made from ferula root, which is part of the celery family )
1/2 tsp. turmeric powder
2 tsp. salt
2 Tbs. ghee (preferably), butter or oil
1 tsp. cumin seeds
1 tsp. grated ginger
1 tsp. minced garlic
1/2 cup chopped tomatoes
1/2 cup chopped onions
1–2 whole fresh green chiles
1 tsp. red chile powder
1 tsp. garam masala
Fresh squeezed lime
Naan, roti, or rice, for serving
To make the lentils:
- Rinse the yellow split pigeon peas, red lentils, and green gram dal thoroughly under running water and soak for one hour.
Using a pressure cooker
- Pour the drained lentils into the pressure cooker, then add 2.5 cups of water. Allow the water to come to a gentile boil; skim off the foam with a ladle, which can help reduce the bitterness of the lentils (optional).
- Add turmeric powder, asafoetida, and salt.
- Close the lid of the pressure cooker and cook on medium heat for one whistle, then turn down the heat to simmer and set a timer for 10 minutes. Turn off the heat when the timer goes off.
- Allow the pressure of the pot to drop (about 10–15 mins) before opening the lid.
Using an Instant Pot
- Drain the water and pour the lentils into the Instant Pot. Add 2.5 cups of water.
- Add turmeric powder, asafoetida, and salt. Close the lid and the vent.
- Set to “Pressure Cook” mode on “High” for 30 minutes.
- When finished cooking, allow the pressure to naturally release (about 10-15 minutes).
To make the tadka (seasoning):
- Heat ghee (preferably), or butter or oil in a pan over high heat.
- Add cumin seeds and allow to sputter.
- Add garlic and ginger paste and sauté for 10 seconds.
- Add the chopped onions and sauté until the onions are transparent and lightly browned.
- Mix in the chopped tomatoes and green chiles and cook them, covered, until the mixture is soft and mushy.
- Add red chile powder and sauté for 30 seconds.
- Add the seasoning to the cooked dal and gently stir. Add garam masala and salt to taste. Cover and simmer on the lowest heat setting for five minutes.
- Remove from heat.
- Garnish with chopped cilantro and a squeeze of lime. Serve hot with naan, roti, or plain rice.
Watch Tandon’s tour of the Bombay Bazaar grocery store in Aurora—part of our series featuring local chefs.