Heirloom Recipes

Bengali Food is Nearly Inconceivable Without This Ingredient

In most Indian homes, we do not down turmeric lattes: Instead we use it every day (in its ground form, rather than as the fresh orange root), both for its color and its anti-inflammatory qualities (though most spices, in fact, are touted for their health benefits).

Turmeric, in its most basic application, is added to lentils to give them a sunny yellow color. And while most Indian tables are incomplete without a bowl of some sort of lentils, there are a countless variations, and an even greater number of preparations, throughout the country. In Bengal, for example, you’ll find that split red lentils called masoor dal hold center stage alongside yellow split lentils called moong dal.

And for each variety of lentil, there is a particular method of preparation, a distinct prescription of tempering. It is in this simple process—spices crackled in hot oil or ghee to release their flavors, then stirred into the pot of cooked lentils—that the magic of everyday Indian cooking lies.

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In my earliest days of cooking Bengali food in the US, I was hard-pressed to find turmeric. And while the food tasted good, something was missing (though it took me several bowls of lentils to realize what is was).

Turmeric reentered my kitchen the first time my mother came to visit me, carrying her own stash from India. One evening, I returned home from work to find my apartment infused with the most amazing scent of childhood. My mother was cooking orange lentils, a treat she’d make in her Calcutta kitchen in the mild Indian winter, when tomatoes are at their best.

That someone might even attempt to cook everyday Indian food without turmeric was inconceivable to her.

When I peered into the pot of golden lentils and asked her how she managed to get the sunny color, it took my mother some time to even understand my question. Then she said, “Why, with holood of course.” That someone might even attempt to cook everyday Indian food without turmeric was inconceivable to her.

That is how we use turmeric in the Indian kitchen, as a cohort and companion to other spices and flavors, all of which have their space, place, and purpose.

Serve these lentils as a first course, with steaming white rice or freshly made flatbreads.

What ingredient would be inconceivable for you to cook without? Tell us in the comments below.

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • susan g
    susan g
  • travelbyrecipe
  • Nico Rossetti
    Nico Rossetti
  • Mayukh Sen
    Mayukh Sen
  • Panfusine
Delicious dependable recipes often in the Instant Pot


susan G. April 27, 2017
I'm curious: when and where couldn't you find turmeric? Even though it is not from my culture, I've used it for years and year, back in the days when the Indian cookbooks I hoarded where very timid.
Nico R. April 28, 2017
I'm sure Rinku will be able to answer your question, Susan, about where in the US she was unable to get turmeric, but I thought I'd just chip in with my 2 Euro cents' worth.

Like you, I've cooked with turmeric for years (40+ years, actually... wow, that makes me feel a bit old!). Naturally, when I lived in Britain and South Asia, there was never any problem finding turmeric - and other herbs and spices - not so when I left Asia to come and live in the Western Balkans.

Fortunately, I travel with an extensive spice kit, and when I'm running low here, I either visit a specialist importer, or stock up during trips to Britain.

Honestly though, it wasn't until I came to live in former Yugoslav countries that I realised how lucky I was when I lived in Blighty... where I could buy any kind of foodstuff that I wanted. I really took that for granted!
travelbyrecipe May 1, 2017
Is there a difference of taste of individual flavor between the lentils? I would like to know the differences of one to the others, is it taste, is it just colors...? Thank you Nico!
travelbyrecipe April 26, 2017
Garlic! I would like to know why so many different lentils? I grew up eating the dark brown lentils in a thick soup, a dish my 1st generation German grandmother used to make. It would be good if spaetzle (a homemade noodle) and vinegar were omitted.
Rinku B. April 27, 2017
Every lentil has its own character, which comes alive with its own blend of spices. In a culture that relies heavily of lentils for their protein the variety is important. Just like different kinds of meat.
Nico R. April 26, 2017
Although I'm not Indian, I used to live in Kerala, and so many of these new Western trends, which claim to be Indian, utterly baffle me, especially when the claims are full of 'miracle food' hype! But then, so does the use of 'curry' powder! And most Westerners' idea of phad Thai (I used to live in Thailand too)! LOL!

I can't imagine not using turmeric but perhaps even worse is when I see recipes for 4-6 people, which call for a quarter teaspoon of ground coriander or a pinch of garam masala. Don't be scared of spice, peeps! And please, half a clove of garlic? What is that? Ha ha!
travelbyrecipe May 1, 2017
It mean and rude not to include lots of garlic to preparations for dinner, and 1/2 clove just gives bragging rights that you used garlic while 6-8 cloves demands bravery!🤔
Mayukh S. April 25, 2017
Panfusine April 25, 2017
Comfort food , Pure & simple! Down South its borderline sacrilege to forget the turmeric. The only occasions that turmeric is deliberately excluded are for foods associated with funereal rituals.
Rinku B. April 27, 2017
Interesting to note about the elimination!