Wasted Effort

My teacher, Mitali, has done a fantastic job of keeping my Hindi classes interesting and fun and lately one of our regular activities is for me to learn muhavare – idioms. In any language, these are really fun for me as they are, in a sense, word play and that is something I love. And they also make me think about my world a little differently.  And of course I can make my coworkers in India laugh and that’s always fun.

For example, take last Friday when we were in a meeting and talking about someone who changes his mind a lot. I said “Vo thaali ka baingan hai.” Literally this means “an eggplant on a plate” but it can mean someone who changes their mind like the wind. One day they tell you to do one thing, the next they do another – in the same way that if you have an eggplant on a plate, the slightest tilt to the plate will send the eggplant careening off in another direction.

Outside of our Hindi class I’ve been looking for new ones as they really are so much fun. I came across another one recently: Daal nahin gali. This one literally means the lentils (dal) didn’t dissolve. Figuratively, though, it means “wasted effort”. You went through all of this effort to cook dal for your dinner and it didn’t even dissolve.

That muhaavra turned over and over in my mind for a few days. The primary thought was: “Wait, my dal is supposed to break down?”

For a couple of decades I’ve been using the same recipe for masoor dal (red lentils) from a cookbook I bought when I first tried Indian cooking. It says to put the lentils in water and boil for 30 minutes or until done. And I always did this. And my dal ended up looking like this:


Which tastes great because it has delicious spices and ghee in it. But if you look closely… Daal nahin gali. And it’s a bit watery. Not so great. Depending on how I cooked it there would be various levels of softness – they were never crunchy, mind you, but sometimes they held their form more strongly – just as a kidney bean might. But what did I know. Maybe this is how this recipe was supposed to go.

But this muhaavara had me thinking. What if I was wrong? I went back to the drawing board and the next time I cooked them I put them in for 45 minutes. There was a huge improvement.

This morning I was on Skype with another Hindi-speaking friend. I told her this story and after she finished laughing she said “You should cook them in the pressure cooker. It only takes 10 minutes!”

And so today I was inspired to try it again. I got out my pressure cooker, put two cups of dal in, 6 cups of water, a little turmeric and a little cumin and started it. When it finished, I depressurized it and opened it up. There was already a noticeable difference. Dal bilkul pighal gayi. The dal completely melted.

I added two teaspoons of garam masala, some lemon juice, two teaspoons of salt and heated some ghee on the stove. When it was hot I toasted some cumin seeds in it and waited for them to smell delicious. At that point I turned off the heat, added in a couple teaspoons each of red chilli powder and coriander. Once it was well mixed in the ghee I put the whole mixture in to the pot of dal and stirred it together.

It came out perfectly. I also noticed that it seemed so much more hearty and filling. I may have eaten the same amount but I was much more full than I usually am from a simple meal of dal and rice.

Yes, not the most foodie-worthy photo but it was so delicious that you’re lucky I even took the time to get this photo before it was gone!

So clearly there are side effects to language learning that extend well beyond simply being able to communicate with others. It can even change how your family eats.

7 thoughts on “Wasted Effort

    1. Yes – it was a nice and unexpected bonus. I’d say I get to practice a couple short conversations a week give or take. Many people speak Urdu in our neighbourhood so every now and again I get to speak that which is very close to Hindi. If you imagine a venn diagram with the two languages, Hindi and Urdu, there’s a huge overlap but then a few words each uses that the other doesn’t (in Hindi those are usually Sanskrit-root words, in Urdu it’s usually Persian or Arabic-root words). But mostly you can get by if you stay in the middle of the diagram.

      1. That sounds really cool but also super difficult. Learning even this little Hindi was mind-bending and I’ve heard many folks say that Sanskrit was even more difficult.

        I found learning Hindi like jumping out of a plane without a parachute. When I learned the little French and Spanish I know I could fall back on similarities to English words or my five years of Latin study to figure out what words meant. With Hindi I have little to go on. Well, except for the fact that there are a lot of English words that have been incorporated. So those words are the same. And I also never forget the word for pineapple: anana – because it’s the same as the French word.

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