This post is for my fellow members of the Rancho Gordo Bean Club Facebook group. Bean Club members are currently receiving their November boxes and included in them is a legume new to Rancho Gordo: masoor dal, aka split red lentils. I consulted a little bit on some of the text on the packaging (I didn’t ask for payment) and I believe one of my recipes may possibly have gone out with the newsletter in the box. Or maybe not. You’re thinking I should know. Well, it’s a bit of a scandal but I’m in the Bean Club Facebook group even though I am not a member of the Bean Club (this—as I think I have mentioned before—is on account of certain photographs I have of Steve). Anyway, some Bean Club members are finding themselves in possession of masoor dal for the first time and so I thought I would put together a compendium of simple recipes—most already posted on the blog—for them to have at hand as a resource when starting out making Indian-style recipes with it. There is no need to thank me. That’s the kind of generosity and helpfulness I am famous for.
First things first: you don’t need to make exclusively Indian/South Asian dishes with red split lentils. That’s pretty much the only way I make them though and so that’s what I’m going to give you.
Another first thing: masoor dal is typically used in South Asia in one of two variants: either whole and unpeeled (these look like tiny dirty brown pebbles) or split and peeled (these span the colour gamut from orange to red to pink). Despite starting out on the orange-red-pink spectrum, split masoor dal will turn yellow when cooked (and will also completely fall apart when cooked). This will happen in all the dishes below. The names of the dals may occasionally be qualified with terms indicating their whole/split status but both are in everyday parlance referred to as masoor dal, both as ingredient and as the finished dish (assuming you made a dal with them). This last bit is I realize a bit confusing as the word “dal” both refers to the ingredient (lentils) and to one specific class of dishes made with the ingredient (“stewed” lentils) . Even in India, however, dal the ingredient is often used to make things other than the familiar “stewed” lentils—think khichdi,for example, or moong dal halwa, or the use of channa or urad dal in tadkas and chutneys, or of channa dal in things like shami kababs.
And one final first thing: this is in no way a comprehensive guide to Indian ways of making dal (as in the dish) with split masoor dal. It is used all over the country and I doubt I’ve had more than a small fraction of the different ways in which dals of various kinds are made with it. What follows is a small list of suggestions from the kitchen of a Bengali whose family has lived longer in North India than in Bengal and who himself has now lived longer in the US than in India.
Okay, with all waffling preambles out of the way, let’s get started. In my kitchen there are two basic ways in which I approach masoor dal (or mushoor dal as I call it even though I am not a good Bengali). Let’s take them one by one:
1. In the first approach, the dal is brought to a boil and cooked simply and quickly at a high simmer, usually uncovered, with water and turmeric and salt and then a tadka of one kind or the other is added at the end to provide a punch of flavour. Within this method there are two further areas of variation.
A. The ratio of water to dal. You can go from as little as 3:1 cups of water: dal and all the way up to 5:1. With 3:1 you will get a very thick dal and bear in mind it will thicken even further in the fridge. With 5:1 you will get a soupier dal. This has been my preference for mushoor dal since early childhood and so it’s the way I usually make it. You get a soupy dal on the first day and a thicker dal on day 2. And with the soupy dal you get the pleasure of what in Bengali is called “daaler jol” or “the dal’s water”: when you serve the dal in a bowl, the thicker stuff sinks to the bottom, leaving a thinner “broth” at the top: sipping this off carefully is a major gourmet pleasure.
B. The nature of the tadka. This can go from minimalist to maximalist. You can divide the tadka ingredients into two categories: seeds and vegetables. In the former the most common ones in my usage are zeera/cumin seeds and panch phoron (a Bengali blend of five seeds). In the latter are onions, thinly or thickly sliced; garlic, minced or thinly sliced; green chillies, either minced or slit lengthwise; I rarely use tomatoes in this version but there’s no reason you couldn’t (just follow the caution below). In both cases I usually add a few tablespoons of chopped dhania/cilantro to the finished dal after taking it off the heat.
A representative recipe:
Rinse 1 cup of dal in a few changes of water, add 5 cups of water, 1/2 tspn haldi/turmeric powder, salt and 1/2 tspn of ghee or neutral oil of choice and bring to a boil over medium heat. Pay attention as the dal will rapidly rise up the pot (and possibly spill over) when it comes to a boil. When it begins to do this, lower the heat, stir it all down and then cook for about 15-20 minutes till the dal and water have become one.
Prepare the tadka as the dal is about to finish cooking. Heat a tablespoon of ghee/neutral oil in a small skillet and do one of the following:
1. Add 3/4 tspn of zeera and as soon as the seeds split (and before they scorch) add the contents of the skillet to the cooked dal.
2. Add 3/4 tspn of panch phoron and as soon as the seeds split (and before they scorch) add the contents of the skillet to the cooked dal.
3. To either step 1 or 2 above add some combination or all of the following about 30 seconds after adding the seeds: a small red onion thinly or thickly sliced; one garlic clove, either minced or thinly sliced; 1-2 Thai chillies, either slit or minced; 1/2 cup chopped tomato. If using tomato cook the tadka till the tomatoes have completely cooked down (you don’t want chunks of tomato floating in the finished dal). If not using tomato cook till the onions are browned to your liking but don’t let them (or the garlic) scorch. Add the contents of the skillet to the cooked dal and stir in.
In all cases finish by stirring in a few tablespoons of chopped dhania/cilantro. In the rare cases where I’ve been caught without usable dhania in the house I have been known to use the green parts of green onions or leeks and sometimes even chives. Serve with steamed rice or in a bowl with chapatis with a small lime wedge per person to squeeze over.
Here’s a visual guide taken from one of my earlier dal posts. Scroll down for the second variation, which is actually my favourite.
2. In the second approach, the dal is cooked, mostly covered, at a simmer for a longer time with most of the things that you might normally expect to add at the tadka stage added at the outset: sliced onions, garlic, chopped tomatoes, green chillies and yes, even, cumin seeds or panch phoron.
A representative recipe:
Rinse 1 cup of dal in a few changes of water, add 4 cups of water and all of the following:
- 1/2 tspn haldi/turmeric powder
- A small red onion, thinly sliced
- 2 cloves of garlic, thinly sliced
- 1/2 cup chopped tomato
- 2 slit Thai chillies
- 2 tspns ghee
When the whole comes to a boil, reduce the heat to a low simmer, cover the pot and cook for 30-40 minutes. Uncover, stir to mix thoroughly, mashing any larger chunks of tomato against the side of the pot. Stir in another tspn of ghee, add dhania/cilantro and serve with rice or in a bowl with a lime wedge per person.
Variation 1: Add 3/4 tspn of panch phoron at the start with everything else.
Variation 2: Instead of stirring in 1/2 tspn ghee at the end make a simple tadka with 1 tspn ghee and 3/4 tspn panch phoron and stir that in.
Variation 3: Instead of 2 cloves worth of sliced garlic add a whole head of garlic, separated into cloves and peeled. The garlic will soften and melt into the dal by the end (or when you stir). No tadka. This is by far my favourite way of making mushoor/masoor dal.
A note about tadka: It pains me to say that on Instagram, various food blogs and also, unfortunately, in the work of some popular cookbook writers of Indian origin in the US, tadka is both over-used and abused. By which I mean both that way more seeds and red chillies and ghee/oil are often used than necessary and that often these are scorched/burnt. Avoid this approach: it makes for dramatic photographs but for unbalanced dishes (and in the case of burnt/scorched chillies and zeera, unpleasant ones). A tadka should accent the thing you are adding it to—in this case, a mild dal with a lovely savoury flavour and soft texture of its own—not dominate it. As you see above, my favourite version of mushoor/masoor dal doesn’t even involve tadka.
Now you’re wondering if in addition to these simple, hearty, everyday versions of dal I don’t also have a fancy-schmancy recipe I could give you. Actually, I do. It uses coconut milk, lime leaf, chicken stock and fish sauce and even deploys a blender. You’ll feel very cheffy making this. I call it Kolkata Via Bangkok and serve it at parties as either a soup or over rice.
Now go forth and make some masoor/mushoor dal! And if you come up with variations of your own on the above or find others elsewhere that you like as well or better, let me know.