Toor dal, or arhar dal, as it is also known, was not made very often in our home when I was growing up. Unlike mushoor/masoor, moog/moong, chholar/channa dal it’s not one of the staple dals of the Bengali kitchen. Though I didn’t know it at the time, I did eat it quite often regardless, as my family often went out for South Indian food and toor dal is the dal used in sambar. This was in the 1970s and 1980s—the only South Indian food available outside South India was of the idli-dosa-vada-sambar variety. It is a staple dal in the South and also in places like Gujarat and most of the preparations I make of it in my own kitchen come from those directions. The recipe I have today is not a traditional one—though odds are good that it resembles one closely: it is very hard to generate novelty within foodways as massive and heterogeneous as Indian ones. You might think you’ve come up with something new(ish) but then it’ll turn out you’ve only hit upon a preparation you’d just never heard of before. If that’s the case here I’ll take it as a compliment.
Toor dal is a hearty, robust dal which holds up well to robust spicing and that is what I employ here with a lot of freshly ground pepper, grated ginger and a lot of garlic. The garlic goes in as whole cloves, however, and so the final dish does not have a strong garlic aroma or flavour. This is where you will ask if you can make this with any other dal. Normally, I’d look at you pityingly but the pandemic has made me a kinder person. If you don’t have toor dal on hand and don’t fancy a trip to an Indian grocery in these days of quarantine then yes, there are substitutions you can make. Channa/chholar dal would be best. If you don’t have that either then moog/moong dal (the peeled, split version) would be okay, I guess. If you don’t have that either then whole masoor dal might be acceptable in a pinch. That’s about as far as I’m willing to go. (You can, of course, also purchase toor dal online.)
- 1 cup toor dal, washed
- 1 head’s worth of garlic cloves, separated and peeled
- 1 heaped tblspn freshly grated ginger
- 1 tblspn black peppercorn, coarsely ground
- 1 tblspn jaggery
- 1 cup tomato puree
- 3/4 tspn haldi
- 2 tspns ghee
- 4 cups water
- Salt to taste
- 1 tspn zeera/cumin seeds
- 3-4 dried red chillies
- Wash the dal and set it to boil over medium-high heat with 1 tspn of ghee and everything but the zeera and red chillies.
- Once the dal comes to a boil, lower to a brisk simmer and cook, partially covered till the dal is soft and just holding its shape (30-40 minutes, probably).
- Heat the remaining tspn of ghee in a small pan over medium heat and add the zeera. When the cumin seeds start to split add the red chillies and saute till glossy and beginning to puff up. Pour over the dal.
- Eat with chapatis or rice with some greens on the side.
- I’m vague on the cooking time because I always make toor dal in my old-school Indian pressure cooker. If you’re using one of those, cook for 4 whistles over medium heat and then let the pressure subside on its own. If you have an Instant Pot you’ll have to figure out the conversion on your own.
- Toor dal is a naturally sour dal. I use the jaggery to balance both the sourness of the dal and the bite of the pepper. If you don’t have jaggery use brown sugar (and if you don’t have brown sugar use regular sugar).
- For a one-pot meal you could certainly add vegetables to this: cauliflower, broccoli, daikon, turnips, cabbage would all be good additions; maybe pumpkin too.
- Some inexplicably popular influencers may have you thinking that the tadka should involve a puddle of ghee and massive amounts of zeera. Ignore this folly. You’re cooking with one cup of dal: 1 tspn total of seeds in your tadka is plenty. Tadka is meant to set the flavour of the dish off, not dominate it.
- If you want a stronger garlic flavour, hold one clove of garlic apart, mince it and add it to the tadka along with the chillies (taking care not to let it brown).