Delicious, Spicy Dal
Dal is a staple of Indian cuisine, but "staple" doesn't mean boring, not by a long shot. This is a richly flavored dal that will delight you every time you make it. And it's easy!
- 1 cup masoor dal (common red lentils), or any split lentils or yellow split peas
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 1/2 teaspoon brown (black) mustard seeds. If your grocery store doesn't have these, check your co-op, natural food store, or Indian grocery.
- 1 dried red chili (2 if you are adventurous).
- 1/2 to 1 cup chopped onion (I like red onions for this, but yellow or white onions will work too.)
- 1 generous teaspoon minced garlic
- 1 teaspoon salt
- About 10 fresh curry leaves (optional). "Curry" in this instance doesn't mean the same thing as curry spice. These leaves from the tree Murraya koenigii are similar in appearance to very small bay leaves and add a wonderful earthy flavor to the dal, but they are not essential to the recipe. You can find them at Indian and Asian grocery stores.
- 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice (optional)
- 1 teaspoon ghee [rarified butter] (optional)
- 1/2 teaspoon cumin (regular cumin is traditional, but if you have access to brown cumin (Kala Jeera), use it as I do for a richer, earthier taste.)
- 1/4 teaspoon turmeric
- 1/8 teaspoon cayenne
Hint: When I do any Indian cooking, which uses a lot of ingredients, especially spices, I like to gather all the ingredients beforehand in small containers. Things go more rapidly then.
First wash and drain your lentils or split peas very thoroughly—and not just to clean them. Dals are quite starchy and if you don't remove most of the surface starch, they may produce some undesirable after-dinner music and fragrance later. I put mine in a strainer and wash them under the tap (notice that white run-off), but you can also wash them in a bowl, emptying and refilling the bowl several times.
Put the dal in a saucepan (2 quarts), add 2 1/2 cups of water, partially cover (just a crack open to let off steam), and bring to a boil. Make sure it doesn't boil over! Reduce the heat and simmer for a half hour, or until the water is absorbed. (Yellow split peas take a little longer, say 45 minutes.)
While the dal is cooking, combine the spices for the masala and grind them in a mortar and pestle or suribachi, or use a small coffee or spice grinder. I find that the blades of many grinders won't be very effective for such small quantities of spice, however, and prefer the manual method. It is beneficial to grind the spices together to blend the flavors, but you don't have to pulverize them so that the individual spices are physically unrecognizable or anything. A minute or two with a mortar and pestle will do.
When the dal is finished cooking, set aside and pull out a frying pan with a lid—or find something you can use as a lid. Heat the oil in a frying pan till you see it smoke a little. Add the mustard seeds to the oil and put the lid on. You'll start to hear them pop. See how fun Indian cooking can be? When the popping subsides, remove the lid and add the red chili, and the curry leaves if you are using them, moving them with a utensil. After about a half-minute or so, add the onion and cook until it softens and browns a bit, stirring occasionally. Then add the garlic and fry one more minute. Now stir in the ground masala (use a brush or your finger to get every last bit of spice out of your mortar or suribachi— don't want to miss one grain of flavor!) Combine thoroughly while frying one more minute.
Now fold in and stir the contents of the frying pan into the saucepan of dal and add the salt and about 1/2 cup of water. This dal typically would have the consistency of a thick soup, but many prefer their dal thinner. You can control the thickness with the amount of water you add. Partially cover and simmer for another 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally so nothing sticks to the bottom of the pan.
Remove from heat and stir in lemon juice and ghee if desired.
Enjoy traditionally with rice and/or naan, or as a delicious dish anytime.