Cai Davies’s happy meal is a dal with all the trimmings

The young chef has been behind the scenes in the UK’s best restaurant and manages his own Welsh-Japanese pop-up, but his happy meal comes from another place…

Hero image in post
photo: Cai Davies
Hero image in post
photo: Cai Davies

The young chef has been behind the scenes in the UK’s best restaurant and manages his own Welsh-Japanese pop-up, but his happy meal comes from another place…

By Rhys Thomas27 Nov 2023
5 mins read time
5 mins read time

Cai’s tasted a few things in his short but significant time working at some of the UK’s best kitchens. Char sui squab pigeon, wagyu beef aged in beeswax, banana sorbet with kaluga caviar and birch syrup are just examples off the menu at Ynyshir; raw stone bass, a burnt lemon and artichoke broth, and bone marrow have all occupied the menu at Orasay. But for Cai, happiness can be found in a place more familiar to, if not closer to home.

Happy Meal is where we hear from upcoming chefs about the foods that mean the most to them, that combination of ingredients that act as a bespoke and personal soul-soothing concoction, a happy meal. A meal that makes you happy.

For Cai, that meal “has to be a lentil dal with all the trimmings” he says, adding that for him “dal is just perfect, especially when trying to get cosy. In Wales, when over half the year is cold, wet and windy, coming home to a bowl of dal with rice and yoghurt is a special moment. And it’s actually so quick to make!”

Cai isn’t quite sure when he first had dal, but he’s fairly sure it would have been at his grandma’s house in west Wales, on the windy coastline, in the wettest part of the country. “I know I didn’t think much of it initially, it’s a slow burner of a dish, one that grows on you and ends up being something you find yourself making more and more as the years go by.” He says.

Many chefs share this philosophy, of simple excellence being better than anything else. Heston Blumenthal’s favourite food is reportedly mac and cheese, Anthony Bourdain’s a pastrami sandwich, Gordon Ramsay’s is roast beef. “I see it as a bit of a mystical dish. Lentils are good but it just amazes me that a simple pulse can have such a warming effect on my day. I guess it’s kind of like porridge: filling, gives me energy, and is quick to make.” Cai says. Here’s what else we spoke about, and yes don’t worry, Cai’s added his own recipe at the end.

from Cai's pop-up Yaki Da

How else would you say dal is mystical?

Dal is one of those dishes where if you get it wrong it is completely underwhelming, but when it’s made right, not much can beat it, and I could eat it almost everyday if I had to.

Given the ideas of it warming against the cold, would you say your happy meal is also a comfort meal?

Yeah, I guess I’m looking for comfort from this, it’s nourishing. But when I eat comfort food I still want some colour in the food, and a vibrant yellow dal with fresh herbs to me, looks so comforting while also being joyful.

When do you tend to have dal?

I will always have it in my mind when it’s raining, but I try to stop myself from eating it too much as I want to appreciate it when I make it. I would say I’d have at least once a month, but it’s one of them meals that once I have it I can stop making more, so it varies, sometimes three times a week. It’s also what I make people if they need a ‘pick me up’.

A recipe card for dal by chef Cai Davies

How do you specifically make your happy meal?

Thought you’d never ask! In my opinion, all you need is:

Water 240g Red lentils (240g) Rapeseed oil half a teaspoon or so of turmeric One diced onion One diced tomato Maybe two cloves of chopped garlic (you can use more to taste, but don’t go crazy) Quarter of a teaspoon of mustard seeds Just a couple of curry leaves if you have them Two tablespoons of yoghurt then some extra to serve One fresh green chilli, maybe Coriander is ideal but some fresh herbs work here

And what you do is…

Wash your lentils in a pan until you have clear water (just like rice), this is super important!

Place your lentils on a medium heat to cook in fresh water.

As the dal starts simmering, skim the impurities off the top with a spoon

In a separate - large - pan, while the lentils are cooking, put the garlic in a pan at the same time as the rapeseed oil and heat until the garlic fries a little, about 30 seconds after the oil is heated

Toss in the onions, mustard seeds, and curry leaves (plus the chilli if you want it) sweat this all out for a good while.

Add the turmeric, cook this out for a minute or two

Add the tomato and cook it all out for five minutes

Drain the lentils from their pan, but make sure you keep the water

Add the lentils to the other ingredients and stir

Slowly add the water, making sure you don’t end up with too loose a dal

Cook until the lentils crumble easy in your fingers, but not so much that the lentils aren’t breaking down completely in the pan

Add the yoghurt, and serve with rice, herbs, and more yoghurt!