Dals: Simple Indian Comfort Food

(From bottom) Masoor dal, or pink lentils, split yellow mung beans and split skinless black gram. i i
Reem Rizvi for NPR
(From bottom) Masoor dal, or pink lentils, split yellow mung beans and split skinless black gram.
Reem Rizvi for NPR

My first official kitchen chore, at the ripe age of 6, was to help Mom with the dal. It is one of the first dishes I learned to cook from her, and I still consider her the ultimate dal expert. Dal is sort of an umbrella term under which my family (and, I bet, most Indians) lump pulses and legumes such as lentils, beans and dried peas.

My mother measured the dal by the fistful — one fistful per person — and placed it in a large stainless-steel bowl called a parat (you can use any large bowl). My job was to pick out the debris: the stones, the sticks and whatever else did not belong in there. Then I had to place the dal in the chaalni (a kind of sieve; you can use any fine mesh sieve) and rinse it several times. If it was any other dal than moong dal (a small, split yellow mung bean, possibly one of the most popular dals in northern India) or masoor dal (pink lentils), I had to put it back in the clean bowl, add water and leave it on the counter to soak and soften for the night. The next day, Mom would drain out the water and then cook the dal. Draining the water was key, Mom would always tell me, as this would make the dal easier to digest.

There are countless ways to prepare the many dals in Indian cuisine, and it would take an entire book to list them all. However, my mother taught me some techniques that can be applied to many dals.

For dals with quick cooking times, such as moong dal and masoor dal, Mom places the dal in a deep pot, adds water to cover, seasons with a bit of turmeric and then brings it to a boil. She skims off any scum that forms on top of the boiling dal. She then reduces the heat to medium and allows the dal to simmer until it is soft and mushy. Just before serving, she garnishes it with a tadka, or tempering, of hot oil seasoned with spices, ginger, garlic and lastly salt.

About The Author

An engineer turned food writer, Monica Bhide writes about food and its effect on our lives. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The New York Times, Food & Wine, Prevention, Cooking Light, Health and Self. Her latest book is Modern Spice: Inspired Indian Flavors for the Contemporary Kitchen (Simon & Schuster). Read more at her website.

My mother's dals always have a sprinkling of homemade garam masala (ground warm spices) and freshly chopped cilantro. Chef Maneet Chauhan, a judge on the popular TV show Chopped, once told me that to her, dal was like a blank canvas: You can use any flavoring to make it more interesting. She adds ingredients such as mango, mint, beet or other seasonal items to add an unusual delicious dimension to the same old dal.

Another way to make these two quick-cooking dals: Heat oil in a deep pan and add cumin seeds. When the cumin begins to sputter, add finely chopped garlic, ginger, onions and a bit of turmeric. Cook for a few minutes, until the onions soften. Add the dal and water. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat to medium and simmer until the dal is cooked. Just before serving, heat some ghee (clarified butter), butter or oil and add a bit of minced garlic. Once the garlic sizzles, pour over the dal and serve.

To use the dal in a salad or a dry preparation, Mom taught me to make the dal "bloom" in the water. She adds the dal, usually skinless split urad dal (black gram, a very popular legume in Indian cooking that is actually white when skinless) to boiling water and allows it to boil for a few minutes until the dal is just cooked (think al dente). She then removes it from heat, pours out the water and uses it in a warm dal salad or lets it cool for a cold dal chaat, tossing the dal with chopped onions, tomatoes, cilantro and lemon juice, and seasoning it with salt, ground toasted cumin and chaat masala, a salty-spicy blend (and one the few blends she would ever buy premade).

Dals that need longer cooking time, such as the whole urad dal (used in the well-known dal makhani, with tomatoes and cream), are cooked plain in the pressure cooker. If you don't have a pressure cooker, you can still make this by cooking the urad dal on medium heat for several hours. Once the dal is soft, the seasoning begins. Mom adds the cooked dal to a base of cooked onions, tomatoes and ginger and further cooks it until the flavors blend. (While some people say this particular lentil does not need to be soaked, I find that soaking does speed up cooking.)

One of my favorite childhood chores was to clean the skinless split urad dal. This meant that there would be fried vadas in the house, and they were my favorite. The dal was soaked overnight, and the next morning Mom ground it into a batter along with ginger and cilantro. She then deep-fried dollops of the batter to create these little dumplings that were delicious with chutney or bathed in a sauce of yogurt and garnished with tamarind chutney.

Dals provide a great source of protein and don't have any fat other than what we add for garnish. In our house, for generations, the whistle of the pressure cooker always signals that a comforting dal dish will be for dinner.


Recipe: Simple Lentil Curry

This is our weeknight staple. This simple dal tastes good as a side, atop steamed rice or even thinned out as a soup. It also freezes well. This recipe is adapted from Monica Bhide's Everything Indian Cookbook (Adams Media 2004).

Simple Lentil Curry i i
Reem Rizvi for NPR
Simple Lentil Curry
Reem Rizvi for NPR

Makes 4 servings

1 cup yellow moong dal (split yellow mung bean)*

4 cups water

1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric*

4 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 teaspoon cumin seeds

1 small red onion, peeled and minced

1 teaspoon grated ginger

1 green serrano chili (or jalapeno), seeded and minced

1 small tomato, finely chopped

Salt to taste

1 tablespoon minced fresh cilantro (optional)

Pick through the dal and remove any debris. Rinse the dal thoroughly under running water in a fine-mesh sieve. Drain thoroughly.

In a deep saucepan, bring water, turmeric and 1 tablespoon of oil to a boil over high heat. Add dal. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook, uncovered, 30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until dal is very soft. If the water starts to dry up, add another 1/2 cup water. Remove from heat and set aside.

In a medium skillet, heat the remaining 3 tablespoons oil over medium-high heat. Add cumin seeds and when they begin to sizzle, add onion. Saute for 7 to 8 minutes, until onions are well browned.

Add ginger, chilies and tomato. Cook, stirring occasionally, for another 8 minutes or until tomato is soft.

Add salt to taste and cilantro and mix well. Add onion mixture to the dal and mix well. Reheat the dal gently and serve hot.

*Available at Indian grocery stores.

Variations

A simple moong dal can be dressed up by changing the tadka, the hot seasoning that goes on top. Connecticut-based chef Prasad Chirnomula shared some of his tadka ideas. "Ghee is ideal for a tadka but can be substituted with your choice of oil — although with quite a bit of taste sacrifice," he said. He provided four different ways to change the profile of the basic moong dal. His mother's tadka is the first one.

Basic method: Heat the ghee or oil. Add the other ingredients and give them a few seconds to heat up/sizzle. Pour the tadka over the cooked dal.

Variation 1

Ghee

1 or 2 whole dried red chilies*

1 clove garlic, peeled and smashed

4 or 5 curry leaves*

1/2 teaspoon chana dal (split Bengal gram)* (note the small quantity of lentils used here; they remain crisp when fried)

1 teaspoon white, or skinless, split urad dal (black gram, a type of legume)*

1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds

1/2 teaspoon mustard seeds*

Variation 2

Start with tadka in variation 1 and add a touch of asafetida and 1/2 red onion, chopped.

Variation 3

Ghee

1 clove garlic, peeled and smashed

1 green serrano chili, finely chopped

4 or 5 curry leaves*

1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric*

Variation 4

Ghee

1 teaspoon panch phoran (mix of cumin, mustard, fennel, fenugreek and onion seeds)*

*Available at Indian grocery stores.


Recipe: Split Lentil Dumplings (Urad Dal Ke Vade)

These delightful lentil dumplings can be served as cocktail appetizers. Traditionally they are served drenched in yogurt and topped with dollops of tamarind chutney. This recipe is adapted from Monica Bhide's Everything Indian Cookbook (Adams Media 2004).

Makes 4 servings

Split Lentil Dumplings (Urad Dal Ke Vade) i i
Reem Rizvi for NPR
Split Lentil Dumplings (Urad Dal Ke Vade)
Reem Rizvi for NPR

1 cup skinless split urad dal (black gram)*

1/2 teaspoon fenugreek seeds (optional)*

4 cups hot water

1 piece fresh ginger (1 inch), peeled and coarsely chopped

2 green serrano chilies, coarsely chopped

Salt

Vegetable oil, for deep frying

Pick through the dal and remove any debris. Rinse the dal thoroughly under running water in a fine-mesh sieve. Drain thoroughly. Combine the dal and fenugreek seeds, if using, with the hot water in a medium bowl. Cover and let soak for 2 hours.

Drain the dal and fenugreek seeds and combine in a food processor with the ginger, chilies and salt to taste. Process to a smooth batter. You may add up to 2 tablespoons water if needed. Transfer to a bowl.

Heat several inches of vegetable oil in a deep heavy saucepan or deep fryer to 375 degrees. Carefully drop the batter, a couple of tablespoons at a time, into the oil. Make sure you do not overcrowd the pan. Fry the balls until golden brown all over, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. Let the oil return to temperature between batches. Continue until all the dal is used. Serve hot.

*Available at Indian grocery stores.


Recipe: Sookhi Dal Amritsari

This dried lentil dish comes from the holy Indian city of Amritsar, which lies in the state of Punjab. Punjabi cooking traditionally uses a lot of ginger and onion, and this lentil dish uses a lot of ginger. In most of Punjab, this is a typical winter dish. The recipe is adapted from How to Cook Indian by Sanjeev Kapoor (Stewart, Tabori & Chang 2011).

Makes 4 servings

Sookhi Dal Amritsari i i
Reem Rizvi for NPR
Sookhi Dal Amritsari
Reem Rizvi for NPR

1 cup skinless split urad dal (black gram)*

3 cups water

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric*

3 pieces ginger, about 1 inch each, peeled and cut into thin strips

1/4 cup vegetable oil

Pinch asafetida*

1 1/2 teaspoons cumin seeds

1 small red onion, peeled and chopped

2 or 3 green Thai or serrano chilies, chopped

2 small tomatoes, chopped

1 teaspoon red chili powder, or to taste

3/4 teaspoon garam masala

2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro leaves, plus more for garnish

4 teaspoons fresh lemon juice

Pick through the dal and remove any debris. Rinse the dal thoroughly under running water. Drain the dal and transfer to a medium bowl. Add the water and soak for 1 hour.

Place a medium nonstick saucepan on high heat. Add the dal and soaking water, 1/2 teaspoon of the salt, the turmeric and half the ginger. Bring to a boil on high heat. Reduce to low heat, cover and cook for 10 minutes, or until dal is soft but still separate. Drain in a fine-mesh sieve and set aside.

Place a medium nonstick frying pan on medium-high heat and add the vegetable oil. When small bubbles appear at the bottom of the pan, reduce the heat to medium and add asafetida and cumin seeds. Once the seeds begin to change color, add onion and saute 3 to 4 minutes, until lightly browned. Add the remaining ginger, the chilies and tomatoes and cook 2 minutes more. Add chili powder and cook until oil separates.

Add the drained dal and mix. Add remaining salt, garam masala, cilantro and lemon juice and mix again. Cook 2 minutes more to blend the flavors.

Transfer dal into a serving bowl and serve immediately. Garnish with chopped fresh cilantro.

*Available at Indian grocery stores.


Recipe: Creamy Black Gram Dal (Dal Makhani)

This dal freezes well, but do not add the cream if you are planning to freeze it; stir in the cream after you have reheated the dal gently. This recipe is adapted from Monica Bhide's Everything Indian Cookbook (Adams Media 2004).

Makes 4 servings

Creamy Black Gram Dal (Dal Makhani) i i
Courtesy of Chef K.N. Vinod
Creamy Black Gram Dal (Dal Makhani)
Courtesy of Chef K.N. Vinod

1 cup whole urad dal (black gram)*

2 tablespoons dried red kidney beans

6 cups water

4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter

1 teaspoon vegetable oil

1 teaspoon grated ginger

1 teaspoon minced garlic

1 cup diced tomatoes (1 large tomato)

1 teaspoon red chili powder*

1 teaspoon homemade or store-bought garam masala

Salt to taste

1/4 cup heavy cream, plus more for garnish

Chopped fresh cilantro, for garnish

1 slice peeled ginger, cut into thin sticks, for garnish

Pick through the dal and kidney beans and remove any debris. Rinse thoroughly under running water in a fine-mesh sieve. Soak dal and beans overnight in enough water to cover. Drain.

In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, combine 6 cups of water, dal and kidney beans and mix well. Bring to a boil. Cook on medium heat, uncovered, stirring occasionally, for about 1 hour. Check to see if dal are soft and beginning to split. If not, continue cooking. If dal starts to dry out, add up to 1 cup of water. Remove from the heat, transfer to a serving bowl and keep warm.

In a medium pan, melt the butter with the oil. Add the ginger and garlic and saute for 30 seconds. Add the tomatoes and cook about 7 minutes, until the oil begins to separate at the sides. The tomatoes may splatter, so use a splatter guard or partially cover the mixture as it cooks.

Add the chili powder, garam masala and salt to taste and mix well. Remove from heat and pour over dal. Mix well.

Just prior to serving, stir in the heavy cream. Garnish with cilantro, a drizzle of cream and the ginger sticks.

*Available at Indian grocery stores.

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