March 29, 2010


Or dhal.

Or dahl.

Or umpti.

It's got many different names and spellings.

This soupy lentil dish is a staple of Indian meals and a favorite in our house. We tend to like it thicker and more porridge-like than it is usually served, but that is the beauty of dal. Want it thinner? Add more water. Want it thicker? Boil it down. Dal can please anyone.

Dal is also the first thing I tell cooks new to Indian food to make, because it's simple and practically fool-proof. I make mine in the pressure cooker (Have I mentioned how much I love my pressure cooker?) because it cuts way down on cooking time, but any old pot will do.

There are almost as many ways to flavor dal as there are households in India, but my everyday one is pretty simple. Throw the dal, salt, some onion, some tomato, some garlic, some ginger, some chili, and some spices in a pot, add water, and cook till tender. Then add in some butter and simmer for another few minutes. I've never had a problem with adding salt at the beginning of the cooking process, but if you're one of those people who steadfastly believes that beans and dals will never soften if salt is added to the cooking pot, add it at the end. I don't mind.

Pictured above are three common types of dals. One you can get in almost any supermarket; the other two will probably require a trip to an Indian grocery store. 

Let's discuss them, shall we?

Masoor Dal
These are split red lentils and should be available in most grocery stores. They cook very fast (in around a half hour) and turn brownish-yellow when cooked. A great first choice.

Moong Dal
These are split and hulled moong beans and a popular north Indian dal. I buy these in an Indian grocery store. Like masoor dal, moong dal cooks quickly and turns yellow when cooked. While I do keep and make moong dal, it's not my favorite and in my opinion not worth specially seeking out, as I think the more widely available masoor dal is similar and tastes better.

Toor Dal
My hands-down favorite. Toor dal has an earthier flavor than the other two and lends itself well to assertive seasonings like asofoetida and curry leaves. Now that I have my pressure cooker (Have I mentioned how much I love my pressure cooker?), I mainly make this dal, but in the dark days I like to call B.P.C. (Before Pressure Cooker) I made masoor dal more often because toor dal takes a very, very long time to cook. That—and the fact that it turns more brown than yellow when it cooks—are its biggest drawbacks. It can help to soak the toor dal before cooking, but count on a few hours of simmering time with this one.

Besides these three, there are many other kinds of dal. Some, like urad dal and chana dal, I mainly use for flavoring. (They turn toasted and nutty when cooked in oil.) Other dal dishes are made from whole beans like garbanzos, red kidneys, or black-eyed peas.

What else can I tell you about dal? As I said, the possibilities are endless. Throw in more chilis or some ground red chili pepper if you want it hotter. Add tomatillos or green tomatoes and some brown sugar for a sweet and sour dal. Add coconut milk or shredded coconut. Fry up some spices in a hot pan and add it to the dal after it's cooked. (This is called a tarka.) My mother makes a wonderful dal with caramelized onions and ghee, or clarified butter. You can add any vegetable you want—carrots, daikon radish, squash, green beans—to make it a more well-rounded dish. Also, if you are out of a spice, don't worry. Skip it or try substituting some other spice. Since dal is cheap, it's worth playing around with it to see what you like. 

If you want to experiment, just remember that a little goes a long way. A cup of dry dal will make enough to feed four people as part of a meal.

Basic Dal
1 cup (or a little more) dal
I onion, diced
1 small can diced tomatoes
1 inch knob of ginger
2 garlic cloves (ginger and garlic can also be chopped if you aren't lazy busy like me)
1 whole fresh green chili pepper, with a slit cut in it
4 curry leaves or 1 bay leaf (optional--but hey, it's all optional)
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp ground coriander
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp garam masala
1/2 tsp turmeric

To Finish:
1-2 tbsps butter
chopped cilantro

Rinse dal, and then put it, together with salt, onion, tomatoes, chili, ginger, garlic, and spices in a pot. Rest your finger lightly on top of the dal and add enough water to reach your second knuckle.
Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring occasionally. Then turn heat down and simmer, stirring every once in a while, until dal is done and whole thing turns soupy. If you like the consistency, add butter and cilantro and simmer for 5-10 more minutes. Otherwise, add water or boil down until it's the thickness you want and then add butter and cilantro.

Dal thickens as it stands, so if you're making it ahead, wait to adjust consistency and add butter etc. until closer to serving time.

There's a great blog with photos of how to make basic dal here. Finding obscure blogs like this one (or mine) are why I absolutely and totally love the internet.

Here's the finished dish, tho this is a terrible picture and I almost didn't post it because I was afraid it would scare you away from making dal.

But really, make it. 
It's easy.


Millicent Meng said...

I love your blog and am looking forward to your cookbook!!!

Anonymous said...

Another use for dhal in India is to add a little to vegetables, mainly split garbanzos (channa) or mung - these because they cook fast. Cabbage and cauliflower are favorites for these.

Anonymous said...

one thing i've noticed about dahl: it's not only satisfying taste-wise but very filling in the tummy. as you say, "a little goes a long way," thus i am generally happy to eat a vegetarian meal which has dahl as one of its components.

i was surprise, however, that your otherwise comprehensive exposé of the leading characters in a dahl disn didn't include some discussion of the spice mixture heated in ghee and added at the very end, just before serving. if you can, i'd appreciate your clear-headed, de-mystifying approach to a discussion of this subject, along with some ingredient hints and techniques you know.

btw, i find your tableware quite attractive, but if your kitchen is so small where/how do you keep it all? (since i'm in somewhat similar small kitchen circumstances, shall we discuss storage suggestions sometime soon, perhaps, please?!!). and from what i've seen, i like your pics, too -- even the occasional lovingly soft-focused portrait of the final "dish" is kinda nice.

all the best, and stay cool in the days ahead!!


Missmasala said...

Hi Richard,

I mention the idea of frying spices in ghee or oil and adding at the end (called a tarka) very briefly, but I didn't really go into it. I usually do this for dals with a more south indian bent, as asofoetida, mustard seeds, and cumin seeds really benefit from this treatment.

Sometimes I will make a basic dal and then the next day, when I am eating it again, add a tarka with asofoetida, mustard seeds, cumin seeds, chili, and curry leaves to wake it up a bit.

And as for my dish storage, I jam my cupboards and put the nicer pieces in a china closet/sideboard type of thing out where the table is. I have a weakness for pottery and one of the things I dream of when I dream of a bigger apt is having a place to show it all off.

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