If you are reading this and are Indian you know all about dal (and it probably doesn’t excite you too much): lentils or beans stewed with spices, served usually over rice or with roti. A classic, simple-to-prepare dish that is high in nutritional value, a ubiquitous side dish at Indian meals, usually served as a supporting actor to another star on the plate. In college at an Indian restaurant in Wisconsin they billed dal as ‘lentil soup’ on their menu. When I received watery dal I was shocked and appalled…the story that my friends gleefully tell is that I angrily (they charged $6 for it!) splashed my spoon into the bowl and exclaimed “I eat this every day of my life!”
My haughty attitude towards
everything this humble dish has evolved over the years. Dal can be prepared in so many different ways: made with beans or lentils, these or those spices, thick or thin, northern or southern varieties…the list goes on. I enjoy preparing dal because of the ceremony- since it is simple I can enjoy the rainbow spectrum of my spice drawer, chopping up all of the ingredients, smelling the fragrant tarka as it fries. We enjoy it so much that we eat it at least once a week, not only as the center of our meal but as the only part of it. A bowl of dal and a glass of wine. Cue raised eyebrows from my aunts. The way we prepare it gives us the satisfaction of a three course meal (and better nutrition).
The tarka is basically a slightly complicated (but essential) garnish. It is my favorite part and if the aroma coming from the frying pan doesn’t make your mouth water then, my friend, you must really think about getting out more.
If you’ve never prepared dal, I encourage you to try the recipe below, and if you are familiar then go on and experiment. Take your mummy’s recipe to the next level.
This recipe is an amalgamation of my mom, Neelam’s dal as well as one from Mark Bittman who originally made me think about dal like a foreigner might.
Note: If you have an aversion to one of the ingredients in the tarka (i.e. ginger or coriander/cilantro)…leave it out or replace it! That is the best part about dal, it is a blank canvas on which you can exact your culinary desires.
Mung Bean Dal
1 1/2 cups yellow split mung bean dal (sometimes spelled moong bean and available at any mildly modern grocery store)
1 14oz can lite coconut milk
1 pinch of turmeric
2 teaspoons salt, more to taste
1 large bay leaf, or 2 small bay leaves
3 cups of water on hand (you may not use it all)
Tarka (this is the best part people)
1 tablespoon peanut oil or 3 tablespoons butter or ghee (fat is not your enemy. margarine is.)
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon asafetida or 1 garlic clove, finely chopped
1 dried red chili
1 medium sized red onion (I used white because that’s what was in my pantry)
1 inch of ginger, peeled, finely chopped
1 green chili, finely chopped (optional)
1 red chili, finely chopped (optional)
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
2 tablespoons chopped walnuts, or halved cashews
2 tablespoons desiccated coconut
2 tablespoons raisins (optional)
Garnish (strongly suggested)
1/2 cup chopped cilantro
1/2 cup chopped mint
The juice of one lemon
(Step by step instructions after jump.)
Yield: 2 if serving as main course, with enough for 2 small lunches the next day, or 4 or more if serving as a side dish.
Serving suggestion: if you can’t wrap your mind around eating dal on it’s own, serve over jasmine or basmati rice.
Thoroughly rinse dal. Combine dal, coconut milk, and bay leaves in pot. Add more water if needed to cover dal and bring mixture to a boil over high heat. After it reaches a strong boil, reduce heat to a gentle boil/simmer. Add water and salt. Tend to dal by adding water throughout cooking process. Do not add too little water, or it will get burned, but too much water will make it soupy (which is okay if this is not the center of your meal) we’re going for a thick porridge texture in the end. Occasionally stir, adding salt as necessary. It will take approximately 45-60 minutes, depending on what texture you prefer. We like it pretty thick as noted, since it is the main (and only) event. Add in a generous pinch of turmeric, and adjust salt.
As the dal starts to thicken up, heat your oil or butter on a frying pan to high heat. When the oil starts shimmering or the butter gets foamy add the mustard seeds and let them pop, about 30 seconds. Add in cumin, asafetida or garlic, and dried red chili, crumbling the chili as you put it in. Let it fry one minute, turn down heat to medium. Add chopped onions, ginger, and fresh chillies and let cook until it turns brown, stirring and tending to it as needed. Properly browning onions takes a long time, and they taste best if they are a bit crispy. After 10-20 minutes add in desiccated coconut, turmeric, walnuts, and raisins if using. Mix together thoroughly. Stir into the finished dal.
Mix all garnish ingredients into the dal before you stir in the tarka except for the pickle. It should be served on the side, and I suggest you splurge and get an organic frou frou kind or, even better, your mom or nani’s special homemade pickle. If you live in Jozi they are available at Arts on Main at the Indian food stand (pictured to the right).
Serve immediately, and hot, with some freshly cracked pepper (optional) . It will be good for lunch the next day too.