Dal, Asian legume dish, makes the perfect meal
What if you met someone who’d never heard of, say, french fries? Or salad? Or... gulp, pizza? Can you imagine?
Well, that might be just the reaction you’d get from the nearly 2 billion residents of southwest Asia if you told them you’d never heard of dal.
Now, I’ll bet that the lot of you are probably down with dal. However, on the off chance that we’re welcoming a gastronomic greenhorn today, let’s spend a little time with one of the world’s most popular dishes.
Why you need to learn this
Dal (and here we’re talking about the dish, not the ingredient) is easy to prepare, inexpensive, filled with protein, virtually fat-free, and — need I go on?
All right, there’s this: Dal is terrific any time of day. In fact, one of my favorite things in the morning is a steaming bowl of spicy dal — over rice or folded inside a flatbread like chapati or tortilla — topped with a poached or overeasy egg. Yum.
The steps you take
Before we get to “dal the dish,” we need to spend a moment discussing “dal the ingredient.”
In a nutshell, dal the ingredient is a hulled, split legume.
And what’s a legume, exactly?
Well, there’s a plant family called Fabaceae, also called Leguminosae. This family is spread among several hundred genera and nearly 20,000 individual species, all of which are the legumes.
Legume seeds grow in pods, and each individual seed (the part we eat) has two halves, called cotyledons, surrounded by a papery husk.
Though not all legumes are edible, those that are come from a number of genera, such as lens (lentils), phaseolus (beans) and pisum (peas). There’s also a genus called vigna that includes the adzuki bean and the moong bean (even though they’re not really beans). Another genus, cicer, gives us the (again) incorrectly named garbanzo bean or chickpea.
As for dal the dish, well, there are exactly 17 gazillion recipes out there, using countless different hulled, split legumes. A handful of dals are better known than the rest, at least among us Philistine Westerners. Here are the most common legumes we see as dal:
Chana (Cicer arietinum): Aka Bengal gram. Smaller, dark- or light-skinned relative of chickpeas. Ground, it’s called gram flour or besan.
Masoor (Lens culinaris): An orange/red variation of your basic lentil.
Mattar (Pisum sativum): This dried green pea is popular in north India, cooked with potatoes or fresh cheese. Split and hulled, mattar dal is the same green split pea we Americans love in soup with an old ham bone.
Moong (Vigna radiata): Round and dark green, moong is the source of the bean sprouts we know from Chinese cuisine. Moong dal is yellow.
Toor (Cajanus cajan): Aka tuvar pigeon pea (though neither a pea) or gandule bean (nor a bean). Whole pigeon peas are popular in the Andes. Hulled and split, toor dal is found in south Indian dishes like sambar.
Urad (Vigna mungo): Aka black gram. Related to moong, urad is used in the popular Punjabi dish dal makhani, and also it’s soaked and ground to make the idli and dosa popular in south India.
Here’s a general method for dal the dish. Remember, there are 19 bazillion dal recipes. And that’s just for soupy, porridgey concoctions like the one below. Dal also can be roasted or fried, and used to make flours and batters. Do some research. And have some fun.
1. Check dried legumes for stones. It’s worth the extra minute to avoid a late-night trip to the emergency dental clinic.
2. (Optional) Soak the dal in cold water, anywhere from 20 minutes for lentils to several hours for chickpeas or urad dal. Soaking decreases cooking time while at the same time dissolving indigestible carbohydrates that can cause bloating and gas in the intestines. Maybe this shouldn’t be optional after all.
3. Put dal in a large saucepan with roughly four times that amount of water by volume along with a quarter teaspoon of turmeric per cup of dal. You can add other spices, like whole chilies, cumin seeds, garlic, ginger, etc., though often those spices come later.
4. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer until dal is soft. Depending on the dal, this could be 15 minutes or it could be closer to an hour or more.
5. Prepare the tarka (in which spices are heated in fat to draw out the flavor), bearing in mind that there are, as I mentioned, 7 katchillion recipes. Generally, though, if you started with a cup of dried dal, heat an ounce or so of oil or ghee (clarified butter) in a pan with some whole cumin seeds, mustard seeds and maybe a couple whole red chilies. When it starts to color and the mustard seeds start to pop like it’s the Fourth of July, add minced or pureed onion, garlic and ginger along with any finishing spices (like garam masala), chopped tomato, etc. Stir to combine and remove from heat.
6. Combine dal with tarka (or tadka, baghaar or chounck) and serve with minced cilantro and lemon or lime wedges.
Dal with Tomatoes, Onion, Ginger and Garlic
This basic method for lentil dal employs a tarka to add a burst of flavor just before serving. Other lentils can be subbed for the masoor dal. We used split mung dal.
1 cup masoor dal (or other lentils)
4 cups water
¼ teaspoon turmeric
1 tablespoon kosher salt or to taste
1 ounce ghee or clarified butter or vegetable oil
1 teaspoon whole cumin seed
1 teaspoon black mustard seeds, optional
1 to 2 whole dried red peppers, optional
½ medium onion, cut into small dice
1 piece (1-inch long) ginger, peeled, grated
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 large or 2 medium ripe tomatoes, medium dice
Cooked basmati rice
Minced cilantro, lime wedges
Combine dal, water, turmeric and salt in a heavy bottom saucepan over high heat. As water heats, skim scum from surface. When water comes to a boil, reduce heat and simmer until dal is soft, 10-15 minutes.
While dal is simmering, make tarka: Heat a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. When hot, add ghee or clarified butter or oil. When fat gets hot, add cumin seed, optional black mustard seed and optional dried red peppers; cook until cumin seeds begin to turn light brown and mustard seeds start popping, 1-2 minutes.
Add onion; cook, stirring occasionally, until lightly browned, about 3 minutes.
Stir in ginger and garlic; cook until fragrant, 30-60 seconds. If garlic starts to brown, proceed to next step immediately to cool down pan.
Stir in tomatoes; cook to warm through, 1 minute. Remove pan from heat; set aside.
When dal is soft, drain the excess water, if you prefer. Or keep it for a soupier consistency. Stir in tarka and adjust seasoning; serve hot over basmati rice with minced cilantro and lime wedges.
Makes about 5 cups or 6 servings.
Per serving: 142 calories; 3 g fat (2 g saturated fat; 19 percent calories from fat); 21 g carbohydrates; 7 mg cholesterol; 485 mg sodium; 9 g protein; 8 g fiber.