Meet Padmini. She is a third generation Bengalorean and creator of Tharangini Studios (insta: tharanginistudio), an artisanal block printed textile producer. Padmini has a mission to preserve one of India’s disappearing craft traditions through fair trade: hand block printing. She also makes delicious daal, a recipe she recalls learning from her mother, who had learned it from her mother decades ago.
Padmini is animated when she talks about her business. The block printing studio produces some of the world’s finest textiles with beautiful and ancient design elements, while using natural ingredients that have no negative impact on the environment. Most modern textile production, driven by the race to produce more stuff at a lower cost, results in toxic run-offs that cause damage to the environment. At Tharangini Studios they do things differently. They intentionally take their time to produce textiles naturally, without chemical dyes, relying on local ingredients. All of the dyes used in Padmini’s studio are derived from natural, edible, plant-based ingredients.
Take the pomegranate for example. An ancient symbol of fertility, abundance, and good fortune, the pomegranate is found woven in the tapestries of nearly every culture from the Levant to Eastern China, with especial prevalence in the cultural narratives of Iran and India. The symbol appears as a motif in art and literature across these cultures. In Judaism, it is used in ritual ceremony to celebrate the New Year. Packed with tart, juicy seeds, the fruit is both delicious and nutritive, and has been touted as a superfood for its high vitamin and antioxidant content. Now here’s the interesting part. Take the rind of the pomegranate, which is bitter and unpleasant to eat, and you can make it into a most vibrant lime green dye.
Turmeric, an ingredient that holds religious and ceremonial significance in Hinduism and has also caught much attention worldwide for its anti-inflammatory properties, is frequently used to make a yellow dye. Madder is used to make red dye, neem is used to prime fabric for the absorption of dye, etc.
Padmini visits me in Philadelphia when she comes to give workshops on natural textile production at the Fabric Workshop and Museum. I am always delighted to welcome her and I look forward to the smell of her cooking warming up my home.
Bringing people together
Perhaps the most interesting part of our conversation was Padmini’s comment that daal unites India’s many diverse cultures. India has 22 official languages, nearly 800 known languages, and who knows how many culinary traditions. One general distinction can be drawn between northern India, where the meals are more centered around bread, and southern India, where the meals are centered around rice. But daal is a staple throughout the entire subcontinent, binding cultures together with a food that is, ironically, derived from the Sanskrit word ‘to split.’
1 cup toor daal (split yellow pigeon peas)
1 tsp. fresh grated ginger
3 cloves fresh crushed garlic
1/2 tsp. turmeric powder
1/2 tsp. whole cloves
2-3 bay leaves
Fresh chopped cilantro
1 tbsp. ghee
Start by soaking your daal in water for about an hour and discarding the first and second rinse. Padmini uses a pressure cooker, which works splendidly. The stovetop contraption includes a metal bowl for the soaked daal, and a heavy pan with a tight fitting lid. She adds a bit of water to the pan and cooks the daal for about 20 minutes. This method cooks the daal by pressure steaming.
If you don’t have such a contraption, you can simply cook your daal in any pot. Once the daal is soaked it has already absorbed most of the water it can, so you just need to make sure the peas are submerged with a safety layer of water up to 1/2 inch thick. Cover your pot and cook until the peas are soft, about 30 minutes.
Remove the daal from the heat and set aside. In a pan, warm up the ghee and sauteé the ginger, garlic, cloves, and bay leaves. Add the peas and mash them up with a wooden spoon to get a delicate, tender consistency. Remove from the heat and add the chopped cilantro.
In different parts of India, daal might be flavored with additional spices, such as mustard seed, coriander, and cumin. According to Padmini, daal is intended to be delicate and subtly flavored. Play around and find your happy place.