I used to date a Pakistani guy in university when I was in my early 20s. He had immigrated to Canada around the same time my family had, when we both were in our mid-teens. After we started dating and connected over our shared Pakistani background (including food), I found out he wasn’t a big fan of eating daal (lentils). I initially thought it was because he didn’t like the taste, but one time at a Pakistani restaurant, I ordered chana daal and he asked me why I’d order daal at a restaurant since “daal is for poor people.”
Now, I *love* daal. Growing up, we’d eat daal at least once a week in my house – maash daal, kaali daal, peeli daal, chana daal, and not to mention dishes made with daal, such as haleem. My whole family used to salivate over my mother’s kaali daal, which was thick and rich and was instantly eaten up with rice by us all. Pakistani food is extremely meat-heavy, but my family would gladly go vegetarian once a week for daal. It was delicious and versatile – it could be eaten with roti, naan, rice, or just scooped up with a spoon and consumed with raita.
So it came as quite a shock to me when my then boyfriend revealed he didn’t like eating daal because to him, it was meant for poor people who couldn’t afford to eat meat. I had never heard of daal being for poor people, since my family was anything but poor and loved eating those hearty lentils. For him though, it was a bruise on his ego, a reflection of a person’s socioeconomic class. I thought that was just fucked up.
Looking back on it now, and going even further into the past, I realize he wasn’t the only Pakistani person I had come across who held such beliefs about daal. When I was about 11 years old, my parents travelled to the States for a conference my father was attending there, and my brother and I were left in the care of our Taau and Taee (my dad’s brother and his wife – our uncle and aunt). They had two kids, our cousins, who were 3-5 years older than my brother and I.
We stayed with them for over a month during the summer holidays, and when our aunt asked us what we’d like to eat, my brother and I always answered “maash daal!” because it was something they didn’t cook or eat on a regular basis. While we stayed with them, they tried to make it at least once a week (because if more time went by, we’d ask for it again). One day, our older cousin came back home for lunch and saw maash daal on the table and instantly recoiled, saying “Not this shit food again!”
I remember one evening at home with my family, one of my dad’s cousins came over unannounced, a common practice in Pakistan. Normally we’d have lots of meat-heavy food at home to serve and offer guests, but on this particular evening, we just had chana daal at home. It was dinner time, and we were about to sit down to eat when our guest arrived. Naturally my parents invited him to join us for dinner, but not before my mother apologized and said “I’m so sorry, we just have daal today.”
Even then, at the age of 13, I found it a little puzzling my mother would apologize for us having daal for dinner, since all other times it would be a reason to celebrate. Coming home from school and finding peeli daal and rice for lunch was the epitome of comfort food growing up. But with guests or other people around, my parents took on a different feeling towards daal. It’s not that they didn’t enjoy eating it themselves in those moments, but they didn’t want to serve it to guests because, I suppose, it was not seen as royal or worthy enough of a meal to offer up to established and “civilized” company. Afterall, my parents never apologized to our servants for giving them daal to eat.
I never actively thought about how daal was perceived in Pakistan, that to certain rich and nouveau-riche folks, it was a food meant for peasants. And my parents didn’t come from poor families – both my mother and father come from fairly well-off, upper-middle class backgrounds, so it’s not like they only ate daal growing up in their homes. To them, and to my siblings, daal is a delicious source of protein, a meal capable of satisfying the soul (if cooked properly, of course). To this day, my brother and I drool over our mother’s maash daal, never having leftovers whenever she makes it.
Hearing my ex-boyfriend voice his opinion about daal was perhaps the most direct form of someone confronting this bias certain Pakistani people have for the dish. And more than his opinion of daal, what bothered me most was him thinking that what a person eats is, and should be, dictated by their social status and class. His comment was a revelation of how he viewed the world and those who came from different backgrounds than himself. It’s no wonder things didn’t work out between us – I would have gladly picked daal over him any day.