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The how and why of Dal

I went to my local Indian grocery the other day looking for dal, but I couldn’t decide which dal to buy. There were so many kinds to choose from, all enticing – bright orange massour dal, canary yellow chana dal, ivory-hued urad dal and straw-colored moong dal, among others. In the end, I bought 10 one-pound packages, each a different color.

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.

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 porridge consistency.

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, chiles 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.

For an easy snack that trumps popcorn, may I suggest 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.

Buttery Moong Dal with Garlic and Cumin

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 chile, slit lengthwise

4 garlic cloves, minced

1 large shallot, diced

Garam masala or red chile powder (optional)

Plain basmati rice, freshly cooked, for serving (optional)

Put dal, turmeric and salt in a large soup pot, add 7 cups water and bring to a gentle boil, stirring.

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.)

Make the tarka: Heat ghee in a small skillet over medium-high heat. Add cumin, chile and garlic and cook until cumin is fragrant and garlic is lightly colored, about 1 minute. Add shallot and continue cooking until shallot is softened, about 1 minute more. Pour contents of skillet into pot and stir into the dal.

Transfer to a serving bowl or individual soup bowls. Sprinkle with a pinch of garam masala or red chile 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 2 to 3 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. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Chana Dal Sundal

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 chiles, 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

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.

In a large wide skillet, heat coconut oil over medium high heat. Add urad dal, chiles, 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.

Transfer to serving bowl and garnish with cilantro sprigs. Serve warm. Makes 6 to 8 servings.