Dal is as common in India as mashed potatoes are in Minnesota. The word means dried legume, as in lentil or pea. Or chickpea or fava bean. An edible seed that grows in a pod and is hulled and split. Dal is also the name for the thick purée, stew or soup made from these legumes. It may be a nutritious, humble meal served with rice, or it may be just one of several dishes served as part of a more complex meal. It is found on every Indian table every day, rich or poor, rain or shine.
The simplest version of dal is a breeze to make. Put split lentils in a pot with water, salt and a little turmeric and simmer them. It doesn’t much matter which kind of dal you use; most cook in an hour or less, some in as little as 20 minutes. If making dal becomes a habit, you may consider using a pressure cooker, as most Indian cooks do. It cuts the cooking time in half. But I don’t mind waiting for the dal to be done because I’m usually puttering around the kitchen with other projects.
You want to cook the dal until it is completely soft and thick and collapses into a rough purée. For a velvety, creamy texture, whirl it in the blender. If you prefer a bit more texture, beat it with a whisk for a minute to a porridgelike consistency.
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At this point, the dal is edible but bland. It’s time to amp up the taste with a technique all Indian cooks know: sizzle a handful of spices in hot ghee to make a tadka. (Compare this to the Western technique of adding garlic and parsley to a skillet full of sautéed green beans or potatoes for a final blast of seasoning. Not exactly the same, but you get the idea.)
The spice blend varies depending on the dish, but it can include mustard seeds, fennel seeds, whole coriander or dozens of other aromatics. The only spice featured in this dal is cumin seed, known as jeera, along with chopped garlic, chilies and finely diced onion. These are heated in a small amount of ghee or oil until lightly browned and fragrant.
The ghee and spices are stirred into the dal, transforming it into something sublime. The tadka has done its work; now we have a buttery, cumin-scented dal shot through with flavor. The process is not much more complicated than making a pot of split pea soup, but the result is far more tantalizing.
There are many dal-centric dishes beyond this one. Khichdi is a savory combination of dal and rice. Instead of being served side by side, basmati rice and massour dal (split red lentils) are cooked together in one pot. Traditionally it is served with a spoonful of yogurt, but khichdi can also accompany roast chicken or braised lamb, like a pilaf. (Leftovers make delicious fried rice.)
For an easy snack that trumps popcorn, try a spicy bowl of a sundal. On the beaches of South India, sundal is sold in paper cones by itinerant vendors — great for nibbling with a cold beverage. You make it with larger dal, like chana (chickpeas) or chana dal (another type of quick-cooking chickpea, hulled and split). After being boiled until tender, the peas are drained, then sautéed with mustard seed, curry leaves, chilies and grated coconut. Watch it disappear.
In fact, there are thousands of way to cook dal. Try these recipes, but don’t stop there. They are the tiniest tip of the iceberg.
BUTTERY MOONG DAL WITH GARLIC AND CUMIN
6 to 8 servings
1 cup moong dal (split mung beans), soaked 2 hours in cold water, drained and rinsed
½ teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons ghee, clarified butter or vegetable oil
½ teaspoon cumin
1 green chili, slit lengthwise
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 large shallot, diced
Garam masala or red chili powder (optional)
Plain basmati rice, freshly cooked, for serving (optional)
1. Put dal, turmeric and salt in a large soup pot, add 7 cups water and bring to a gentle boil, stirring.
2. Turn heat very low and cover pot with lid slightly ajar. Check pot and stir frequently, as the dal has a tendency to boil over in the beginning. Skim off and discard any foam that rises. Cook for about 45 minutes, until quite soft. Taste and adjust salt. For a smooth, velvety consistency, purée dal in a blender, then return to pot. If you prefer some texture, just beat with a whisk for a minute or two. (If dal is very thick, thin with a little water.)
3. Make the tarka: Heat ghee in a small skillet over medium-high heat. Add cumin, chili and garlic and cook until cumin is fragrant and garlic is lightly colored, about one minute. Add shallot and continue cooking until shallot is softened, about one minute more. Pour contents of skillet into pot and stir into the dal.
4. Transfer to a serving bowl or individual soup bowls. Sprinkle with a pinch of garam masala or red chili powder and/or serve with basmati rice, if desired. Dal may be made in advance, refrigerated and reheated. (It will solidify when chilled and need thinning.) Cool to room temperature before refrigerating. It will keep two to three days.
Variation: Wilt 10 ounces baby spinach leaves (or chopped larger leaves) in a tablespoon of ghee with a little minced garlic and ginger. Stir spinach into dal just before serving, and add lemon juice to taste.
CHANA DAL SUNDAL
6 to 8 servings
2 cups chana dal (split hulled chickpeas), chana (whole white chickpeas) or kala chana (black chickpeas), soaked in cold water overnight and drained
2 tablespoons coconut oil or vegetable oil
1 teaspoon urad dal (split husked black lentils)
2 or 3 red chilies, fresh or dry, slit lengthwise
½ teaspoon black mustard seeds
12 curry leaves
Pinch of asafetida (hing), optional
3 tablespoons grated coconut, fresh or dried
Pinch of cayenne
Cilantro sprigs, for garnish
1. Simmer chana dal in a soup pot in abundant lightly salted water until soft but not mushy, about 15 minutes. (If using whole chickpeas, cook for 45 minutes.) Drain and spread out on a baking sheet to cool.
2. In a large wide skillet, heat coconut oil over medium high heat. Add urad dal, chilies, mustard seeds and curry leaves. Let sizzle for a minute until seeds begin to pop, then add asafetida if using. Turn flame to low and add cooked chana dal and gently stir to coat. Add coconut and continue to stir until spices are well distributed. Check seasoning, adding salt and cayenne as desired.
3. Transfer to serving bowl and garnish with cilantro sprigs. Serve warm.
KICHRI WITH MASSOUR DAL
6 to 8 servings
1 cup massour dal (split red lentils)
2 cups basmati rice
2 tablespoons ghee
3 small hot green chilies, split lengthwise
½ teaspoon cumin seeds
4 cardamom pods
1 2-inch stick cinnamon
6 black peppercorns
1 small onion, diced fine
½ teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups plain yogurt (optional)
1. Pick over lentils, then combine with rice in a medium mixing bowl. Add cold water and rinse several times, draining with a fine sieve, until water runs clear. Cover with cold water and soak for one hour, then drain well.
2. Heat ghee in a saucepan over medium heat. Add chilies, cumin, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves and peppercorns. Let sizzle briefly until cumin seeds begin to brown. Add onion, stir to coat and cook until lightly browned, about two minutes.
3. Add lentil-rice mixture, turmeric, salt and 4 cups water. Bring to a boil, cover and turn heat to low. Cook for 15 minutes, then let rest, covered, for 10 minutes. Fluff mixture before serving. Accompany with plain yogurt if you wish.