This is threatening to turn into a food blog, isn’t it? You all will have to put up with it while we’re under a pandemic. The world is a trash fire, but see, I can cook. And really, if I can find joy in lentils, which are a cheap, innocent and widely-available source of protein, then I’m good. Also today is Diwali and I was supposed to be in India celebrating, not blogging about lentils, sigh.
Dal is a staple part of the Indian diet, and most Indian cooks will have half a dozen varieties in stock, at the very least . Now, I’m referring to all these varieties as lentils for the sake of simplicity, but they’re not all lentils. Mung dal is a bean. Chana dal is produced by splitting the kernel of black chickpeas. So it is more correct to say these are pulses, or just call them dal, which is derived from a Sanskrit word that means split. It can be lentils, peas, or beans. At any rate, they’re all legumes.
Adding to the variety, dal can be whole, split with the hull left on, or split and hulled. Walk into a South Asian grocery store, and you will be dazzled by dozens and dozens of possibilities. So here are a few of my favorite dals and dal recipes.
Split pigeon pea / Arhar dal / Toor dal
Indigenous to the Indian subcontinent, this 3500-year-old legume is my personal top favorite dal. I ate it nearly every day of my life as a child. It is a staple food throughout India. Apparently you can buy the plain or the oily version. I have never tried the oily version, and I never will. It feels like a sacrilege, lol. Anyway, my favorite Arhar dal recipe is not the simple Uttar Pradesh version I grew up eating, but the Gujrati version. It is so good.
Soak the dal for 2-3 hours. Then cook it in a pressure cooker (or instapot) with adequate water, salt, and 1 chopped tomato. Give it 3 whistles, then remove from stove and wait for the steam to escape before opening. Add turmeric, coriander powder, tamarind paste, sugar (just a few teaspoons!) and roasted cumin powder. Add 2 cups more water and simmer for 5-10 minutes until well blended. Remove. Now for the tempering! In a small pan, add vegetable oil. When hot, add mustard seeds. Wait for them to start sputtering, then add cumin seeds, fenugreek seeds, 3-4 cloves, and asafetida. Lastly, add chopped curry leaves and dried red chilies. When the chilies have changed color, remove and add the whole lot to your dal. Voilà! Best served hot with steamed basmati rice.
Split chickpea / Split Bengal gram / Chana dal
Chickpeas are one of the oldest cultivated legumes in the world, apparently going back over 7500 years. They are a very important source of plant protein. (Honestly, everyone needs to stop eating red meat and start eating chickpeas, lol). Black chickpeas are hulled and split to make chana dal.
There are umpteen ways to cook chana dal but the way I do it is with lauki, or bottle gourd, a large green unappetizing looking vegetable. This is one of those vegetables I detested as a child but have come to grudgingly appreciate as an adult. Soak the chana dal for 3-4 hours. Heat oil in pressure cooker, sputter cumin seeds, add chopped onions, green chilies, and ginger. Once onions are translucent, add chopped tomato. Then add chopped lauki. Make sure to peel the damn thing first. Once (I don’t know why, I must have been distracted) I forgot to peel the lauki and it was totally inedible. So, peel the lauki and chop into small pieces and add to the pressure cooker. Sauté for a bit, then add your chana dal, sufficient water, salt, turmeric, coriander powder, and garam masala. That’s it. Close the lid and cook for five whistles or 15 minutes. I don’t do any tempering with this one. Once the steam has escaped, it’s ready to eat. Best with steamed basmati rice.
Black Gram split with hull left on / Urad dal chilka
I’ll be honest. This is not my favorite dal, but it is an interesting one. I make it maybe twice a month. This is also the dal that is used to make the famous Dal Makhani (creamy dal), a staple of North Indian restaurants. Basically, I make Dal Makhani without all the cream and butter.
Soak dal overnight. It will be easier to cook the next day. Heat oil in your pressure cooker, add cumin seeds, kasoori methi (dried fenugreek leaves) and asafetida. Once they’ve sputtered, add chopped onions, ginger, green chilies and garlic. When onions are translucent, add chopped tomatoes. Once cooked, add your dal, sufficient water, salt, turmeric, coriander powder, and garam masala. Close the lid and cook for five whistles or 15 minutes. Once the steam has escaped, open the lid and let it cool. Take half your dal, blend it, and return to cooker. This will give you a smoother, creamier dal. Add freshly squeezed lemon juice, and serve garnished with chopped coriander. Best eaten with hot naan or roti.
Whole Green Gram / Mung bean / Green dal / Mung dal
I love this dal! But I don’t actually make dal with it. I sprout it. Soak your mung beans for two days in a covered pot. Change the water twice a day. In two days you should begin to see sprouts. Drain the water, sprinkle a bit of fresh water, cover and leave it for another two days. You will need to keep checking on it, sprinkling fresh water, making sure it’s not going bad. In four days, you should have nicely sprouted mung beans. You can eat them just like that, but I prefer to make a salad. You can also lightly cook them with chopped onions, green chilies, tomatoes, salt and lemon juice. Do not overcook! You may destroy the delicate sprouts.
Red lentils / pink masoor dal
I am not a fan of this dal, per se. But it can be used to make delicious veggie kebabs. Soak dal overnight. Next day, heat oil in a pan, sputter cumin seeds, then fry plenty of finely chopped onions, ginger and green chilies. Once done, add the soaked dal and enough water to cook it. Add salt, a bit of turmeric and garam masala too. Cook on sim, open or covered, stirring frequently, until you have a thick paste. Allow it to cool. This mixture can be stored in the fridge for five days. You can shape little kebabs with it and fry in a pan whenever you want. Serve sprinkled with fresh lemon juice and chopped coriander.
Of course, there are many, many more dals and umpteen recipes. I haven’t even talked of sambar yet. Sambar would be a whole post by itself. Anyway, if you have an instapot or pressure cooker, there is no reason you cannot make a tasty lentil curry at home. You just need a few basic spices, and you’re ready to experiment!
Oh, and Happy Diwali!