Dal. It refers both to the wide variety of lentils, peas, and beans used in Indian cooking (also known as pulses), and to the seemingly endless array of dishes you can prepare with them. Cooked simply with spices and aromatics, served with rice or bread, dal is a staple of the Indian diet.
I'm hardly an expert on Indian cooking, but I imagine dal is a malleable genre, where a cook's creativity is given expression in his or her unique amalgam of ingredients. There must be regional variations, with different spicing based on local preference, different lentils or peas or combinations thereof driven by local harvests. I call my own a 'ragged' dal, pieced together from a few different recipes, with a combination of pulses driven by happenstance.
It's a simple enough thing to make, although it may feel fussy the first time through, and while it's nourishing, satisfying, and healthy – it's an excellent source of high-quality protein – it's also quite economical. I like to make a triple batch, as the leftovers reheat beautifully for a quick, easy lunch.
I find it helpful in planning for this dish to think of the ingredients in three distinct categories: the pulses, the spices, and the fresh produce.
For the pulses, I use a combination of masoor (little pink lentils) and chana (split yellow peas). I originally used only masoor – which cook quickly and break down into a soft purée. One evening when I was getting ready to make this, I realized I had only about half a cup of masoor – and a big bag of chana. Chana take longer to cook; they retain their shape and have a nice, toothy, texture, and a sort of nutty flavor, more assertive than masoor. I bravely combined the two, and found the resulting flavor and texture so much to my liking that I have continued using this combination.
In the photo above are uncooked masoor (left) and chana (right), with a few black peppercorns just for scale. They're easy enough to find if you live anywhere that has a significant Indian population, where they're available in ethnic markets and maybe even the grocery store. We have a small but well-stocked Indian grocery in nearby Brattleboro, where I regularly stock up on pulses, spices, and Basmati rice. You could use plain old yellow split peas in a pinch – it wouldn't be quite the same, but you'd get the idea.
The number of spices used in Indian cooking can sometimes be intimidating, and the thought of digging out and opening all those spice tins used to scare me off trying. No wonder the masala dabba is standard equipment in the Indian home kitchen. A large tin with a number of smaller tins nested inside, it lets you keep all the necessary spices in one tidy box, with one lid to remove. Most even come supplied with a little spoon for scooping.
This is my dabba below. From the top, clockwise, are chile powder (with spoon), turmeric, garam masala, green cardamom pods, fenugreek seed, ground cumin, and cumin seed in the middle. I need to either reorganize or get a bigger one. I don't use fenugreek or ground cumin often, and would like to keep whole chiles, cloves, and coriander seed closer at hand. Maybe a second dabba is in order.
The spices you'll need for this dal are ground turmeric, whole cumin seed, dried red chiles (the small, hot, Asian ones), and ground hot red chile powder (cayenne will do). I usually toss a few cardamom pods in with the cooking water, but it's hardly a requirement.
For fresh produce, you'll need onion, garlic, ginger root, hot green chile, lime, and cilantro. Try and find serrano or other small green chiles; too often (around here, anyway) the jalapeños available are the TAM variety, and sorely lacking in punch.
Like many Indian recipes, this one relies on a tempering oiI (tarka or tadka) for seasoning. Spices and aromatic vegetables are cooked separately in oil or ghee (clarified butter), then poured over the top or blended in at the end. I find it helpful to organize the process by starting the pulses cooking first, and then prepping the aromatics and making the tempering oil. It all seems to end up ready at about the same time.
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This is a somewhat spicy dish. If you're averse to ‘hot’ foods, leave out or cut back on the 3 forms of chile.
I like to serve this over basmati rice, with plain yogurt on the side. With rice, this will serve 3 or 4 people.
1/2 cup masoor dal
1/2 cup chana dal
1/2 tsp. ground turmeric
2 green cardamom pods (optional)
1 tsp. salt (or to taste)
2 – 4 cups water
For the tempering oil:
3 tbsp. canola oil (or ghee if you have it and aren't vegetarian)
1 1/2 tsp. cumin seeds
1 medium red onion
2 whole dried hot red chiles
1 large clove garlic
1-inch piece fresh ginger root
1 fresh hot green chile
1/2 tsp. red chile powder (or cayenne)
Small bunch cilantro
Have a few small dishes on hand to keep your prepared ingredients in.
Put the dals in a large lidded saucepan. Pick through them to check for any small stones or other detritus. (This often sounds like a waste of time, but 1 in 20 or 30 times I will come across a tiny stone, and my teeth are always thankful that I took the time to check). Rinse them a few times by swishing cold water in the pan, then pouring it off.
Add the measured cooking water to the pot. The soupiness of the finished dal will depend on the amount of water you use to cook it. I like mine medium-soupy, so I use 3 cups of water to 1 cup of dried dal. 4 cups will make it very soupy; 2 cups will make it more like a soft purée. If this is your first time, start with 3 and see what you think.
Measure in the turmeric and salt, and toss in the cardamom pods if using. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat and either skim off the foam that forms or just stir it in. (I've not noticed a difference in the end result, so I stir it in.) Reduce the heat to a low simmer and cover the pot. Check at about 15 minutes in: add a little more water if it seems dry; taste and add more salt if it needs it.
While the dal is cooking:
Measure the cumin seeds into a small dish. Peel the onion and cut it in half lengthwise, then slice it thinly crosswise. Set this aside in a second small dish. Peel the garlic and ginger mince them, along with the green chile (including the seeds and membrane). Put all this in a third small dish with the dried red chiles.
(If you're making rice, now would be a good time to start it.)
Clean the cilantro and chop enough that you have about 1/2 cup.
Make the tempering oil:
Have a small cup of water standing by. Heat the oil or ghee with the cumin seeds in a medium skillet over medium-high heat. When the seeds start to color and become fragrant, add the onions and fry them, stirring from time to time, until they're very soft and nicely browned. If/when they start to burn or stick in the pan, add a little water. Raise the heat a little and add the garlic, ginger, green chile, and dried red chiles. Fry just until the garlic loses its raw smell and both the ginger and garlic are fragrant. Remove from the heat and quickly stir in the chile powder, then stir in a few drops of water to stop the cooking.
Check that the dal is cooked through. Add a little more water if necessary. Then stir in the tempering oil and 1/4 cup of the cilantro. Squeeze in the juice from the lime. Stir and let simmer a few more minutes.
Serve over rice, with the remaining cilantro scattered over the top and a dollop of yogurt either on top or to the side.