In my recipe for chholar dal, with which I kicked off the first edition of my Indian Home Cooking Week series, I hazarded that the triumvirate of dals in the Bengali kitchen comprises chholar, moog and mushoor dals (to use their Bengali names). And for this edition of the series I will begin with a recipe for mushoor dal.
Mushoor dal (masoor in Hindi, banal “red lentils” in American) is not a fancy dal and I don’t know of any fancy ways of preparing it (at least not in Bengali cuisine). You boil the dal, you add some tadka/phoron (or maybe you don’t) and that’s it. But subtle variations in the few ingredients can make a big difference in the final result. This recipe is for how I usually make it, following my mother and especially our cook when I was growing up, with whose name my sister and I associated this dal. For us it wasn’t mushoor dal, but Ram dal. This version of mushoor dal remains my definition of comfort food and in culinary terms it is the constant link from my childhood to now—it may not be the first thing I remember eating (bananas, I think) but it is the first thing I remember loving. But enough about me.
But before I get to the recipe a quick reminder/repetition of what I’d said about dal in general in that earlier post:
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.
Okay, let’s get to it.
- 1 cup mushoor dal
- 5 cups water
- 1/2 tspn turmeric powder
- 3/4 tspn cumin seeds or panch phoron*
- 1/2 cup onion, thinly sliced
- 1/2 tspn garlic, minced or thinly sliced
- 1-2 hot Thai chillies, sliced lengthwise or minced
- 3-4 tblspn chopped cilantro/dhania
- Ghee or vegetable oil
*Panch phoron is a specifically Bengali mix of five seeds used in a lot of recipes. It’s available in every Indian grocery; in this case though using just cumin seeds is perfectly fine and it’s what I normally do.
Preparation (see illustrated guide below)
- Rinse the dal in a few changes of cold water till the water is clear.
- Place the dal in a large saucepan with 5 cups of water the turmeric and salt and bring to a boil.
- As soon as it boils reduce the heat to medium and cook above a strong simmer for 20-30 minutes or till the dal is almost completely mashed up.
- While the dal is cooking prepare the tadka (ingredients 5-8).
- When the dal is done or almost done, heat the ghee/oil in a small skillet and add the seeds; stir for 20-30 second and add the onions, garlic and chillies. Stir-fry till the onions just begin to brown around the edges. Do not let anything burn/scorch.
- Add the tadka to the dal, mix in fully and take off heat.
- Garnish with the cilantro and serve.
- Keep a close eye on the dal as it comes to a boil; unless you are using a very large pot it will suddenly and rapidly foam up the sides of the pot and spill all over your stove.
- You can use less water for a thicker dal (but I wouldn’t go below a 4:1 water:dal ratio) or more for a thinner, soupier dal (though I wouldn’t got over a 6:1 water:dal ratio).
- You can eat the dal with steamed rice, with chapatis (especially if it’s thicker) or just straight out of a bowl.
- If eating with rice, a squeeze of lime over the dal and rice is a nice addition.
- For an even easier and healthier variation you can add the onion, garlic and chillies to the pot at the first stage, bring everything to a boil together and then simmer longer with the pot covered. When the dal is done just garnish with the cilantro and don’t bother with the seeds or frying them. When going this way I tend to use a lot more garlic but leave the cloves whole, and I usually add a bit of chopped tomato as well. If you use tomato, make sure it’s completely disintegrated by the end.