Here is the first of my recipes for my Indian Home Cooking Week and fittingly it’s for a dal.
It’s hard to imagine a meal in an Indian home that doesn’t feature dal of some kind, whether it is as the fulcrum of a meal—as the primary source of protein in vegetarian households, or as a cheap source of nutrition in poorer households—or as a preliminary “course” before you move on to fish or meat. It’s eaten with rice, with chapatis and parathas and other breads, and even by itself. As with all other aspects of Indian food, there’s a strong regional aspect to dal: some dals are more prominent in some regional cuisines than others, some are traditionally not eaten at all in some regions, and even the dals that cross regions in popularity are usually prepared very differently in them. And, of course, their names change with language—one region’s toor dal is another’s arhar dal etc.
All of this makes dal, one of the most unglamourous staple foods for Indians, a somewhat confusing terrain for most Americans to navigate. Even the spelling/prounciation is seemingly hard: you’ll often see it transliterated as “dhal” but that’s wrong in almost every Indian language. It always rhymes with “dahl” as in Roald Dahl, but in most languages the d is a soft d (as in the “th” sound in the). As the recipes I will be posting on my blog are largely going to be Bengali you’d best come around to the Bengali way of things. In Bengali, as it happens, it’s a hard d, so dal in Bengali is as Dahl in Roald Dahl, but, of course, far less perverse.
The three most popular dals in Bengal are probably mushoor dal, moog dal and chholar dal. These names are the Bengali names. Elsewhere in the north, mushoor dal is known as masoor dal, moog dal is moong/mung dal and chholar dal is chana dal. And, indeed, if you go looking for a package of chholar dal in Indian stores in the US you have to look for chana dal. Mushoor dal and moog dal are probably the staple Bengali dals with chholar dal, a richer dal in general, more likely to be seen on special occasions, though, of course, not only on special occasions. Or at least that’s the case in my extended family. You probably shouldn’t put too much stock by this as I’ve not exactly researched larger Bengali foodways and in general am a very unreliable guide to everything.
I’ll have basic recipes for mushoor and moog dal as well in the coming weeks, but my recipe today is for chholar dal. In case you’re wondering, chholar/chana dal is so called because it is essentially skinned and split small black chickpeas (or kala chana or chhola in Bengal).
Let’s get to it.
- Chana/Chholar dal: 2 cups
- Moong/Moog dal: 1 small handful (optional)
- Turmeric powder/haldi: 1 teaspoon
- Water: 6 cups
- Whole cumin seeds: 1 tablespoon
- One medium red onion: chopped (about 1 cup)
- One large clove of garlic: crushed in a mortar
- As much ginger as garlic: crushed in a mortar
- Tomato: chopped, about 1.5 cups
- Sugar: 1 teaspoon
- Garam masala: 1/2 tspn
- Cilantro/dhania: chopped for garnish (say 2 tablespoons worth)
- Ghee: 1 tablespoon (optional)
- Vegetable oil: 1-2 tablespoons
- Salt: to taste
Preparation (see below for an illustrated guide):
- Rinse the dals together and soak for about 2 hours and then drain.
- Put the dal and 6 cups of water in a pot and bring to a boil with the turmeric and 1 tspn of salt; and then simmer till the chholar dal is cooked but holding its shape (see the image below for a sense of the texture at this point).
- While the dal is cooking heat the oil in a saute pan and add the cumin seeds.
- When the cumin seeds split add the chopped onion and saute on medium-high till the edges begin to brown.
- Add the crushed ginger/garlic and saute till fragrant.
- Now add the tomatoes and sugar and some more salt and cook till the tomatoes have completely decomposed and oil separates.
- Add the contents of the pan (the “tadka”) to the simmering dal and cook on medium-low heat till the dal thickens. It should be easily pourable but not at all thin.
- Once the dal has thickened taste and adjust for salt, sprinkle the garam masala over, stir in the ghee if using and garnish with the dhania.
- Serve with rice or chapatis/parathas.
- I can’t provide an exact cooking time for the dal as I use a stone-age Indian pressure cooker. If you have one of those you should cook the dal for 3 whistles and then remove it from the heat and let the pressure subside before moving on to the “tadka” step. If you don’t have a stone-age Indian pressure cooker I do not recommend that you get one. My wife and children cower in fear when I use it and the dogs howl for the dead.
- This makes quite a lot of dal: enough for 10-12 servings along with other dishes; you can halve the recipe if you don’t want to eat it every day for a week.
- Don’t let the dal get too thick as it will thicken even further in the refrigerator.
- You can use far less tomato if you wish; tomatoes are actually used very sparingly in savoury dishes in traditional Bengali cuisine.
- If you want to add a bit of heat you could add a dried red chilli or two along with the cumin seeds before you fry the onion.
- Following my mother I sometimes add a few cabbage leaves to the dal as it cooks in the first stage.
If you cook it please let me know how it turned out. If you have a different recipe for chholar/chana dal please chime in as well. And tune in tomorrow for the recipe for mishti kumro (pumpkin/squash cooked in a Bengali style).