Simple Authentic* Dal
February 19, 2012 § 1 Comment
E: Now before anyone jumps down my throat here, let me clarify that title: this was authentic. I got the recipe from my good friend Aditya by watching him prepare it a few times for dinner parties when we were in college. I wrote down what I saw, and may have adapted for one or two things that are difficult to find, but I would say this is 80-90% faithful to the original. Hopefully, Aditya himself will be reading this (I know you do check this blog from time-to-time) and can chime in if I’ve erred somewhere.
Authenticity concerns aside, this recipe and I have a long and important history, and so I’m really happy to finally have taken pictures of the process so I can share them with all of you. This is the recipe that got me into cooking. When I tasted this the first time, I couldn’t believe how fantastic it was. And the process had seemed easy enough. So I learned to make it myself, and then promptly made it for everyone I could find. This was the “aha” moment for me, that interesting food could be healthy, tasty, and easily made at home.
Joanna and I have shared this dal many times. However, we often make it when we are tired and otherwise not looking to make an event of cooking. So we just haven’t gotten out a camera and photographed the process. But I picked up three recipes from Aditya during college (and I recently badgered him for some eggplant recipes that I hope to make and photograph sometime soon) and I really wanted to start getting them up on the blog. So here is the first of them.
2 C. red lentils (masoor dal), or green lentils (that was all we were able to find at the time, so that’s what is used here: both are acceptable but red lentils produce a better, less grainy, result)
1 onion (red, yellow, white all work, though I use red for the color)
2 large or 4 smaller (the type sold on the vine) tomatoes
Handful of chives for a garnish (optional and not included in the original version)
2-3 Tbsp. olive oil
1-2 tsp. black mustard seeds (yellow will probably do if you can’t get black)
1-2 tsp. cumin seeds (or ground cumin, if you don’t have the seeds)
1-2 tsp. red chili flakes (or to taste)
2 tsp. salt or to taste
Serve with: brown basmati rice
The first thing to do is to prepare your lentils. (It would be a good idea to get some rice going within the first 15 minutes of the cooking process as well.)
Measure out 2 cups of lentils, and add them to a bowl or a large pot (we generally use a dutch oven for this, though you can use a smaller pot if you don’t have one of that size). Rinse with water a few times, swishing the water around and then draining it with your hand. Pick out anything that doesn’t look like a lentil (I have found 1-2 small stones mixed in on occasion). If you rinsed them in a bowl, move the lentils to your pot now.
Add 4 cups of water, and place the pot on medium-high heat. You want to get the lentils simmering vigorously. While you are waiting for them to cook, cut up your vegetables.
Slice the onion into wedges, strips, or half-moons. They can be a little rough. This isn’t a dish where cutting precision matters greatly. Trim the ends off the carrots and cut them into little sticks about 1/6 to 1/8 the length of a carrot. I generally start by cutting the carrots in half across the middle. Then I take each log I’ve made and cut it lengthwise. Laying the flat sides down, I slice the carrot into 2-3 strips lengthwise, depending on how big the piece of carrot is. Then line all the strips up, and cut them into 3 to 4 shorter pieces.
Cut the tomatoes into quarters or eighths. And cut the chives into 1/4 to 1/2 inch long pieces if you are using them as a garnish.
By now your lentils should be bubbling away. I generally wait until they have cooked for about 20 minutes. They should still be a little tough if you taste them, but by now the amount of water in the pot should have decreased so that it seems a bit low. This is ok. You can add a splash of water if you think you really need it, but avoid the temptation to add too much.
Put the vegetables into the lentils. I generally start with the tomatoes, and put the others on top. Try to get the lentils to cover the vegetables as much as possible.
The vegetables will release a lot of water. If you can’t get them all to be covered by the lentils, you can cover the pot and steam them for a little bit. But don’t leave the pot covered too much or, in my experience, you will end up with a watery result.
At about 40 minutes everything should be about done. Your lentils will likely be a bit watery, but some of the water will cook off in the next few minutes. Now is the time to really infuse some flavor into this dish by making the spiced oil that really makes this dish delicious. Wikipedia tells me this part of the dish is variously called “chaunk,” “tadka,” “Thalimpu,” “popu,” or a variety of other names.
Add the olive oil to a small pan or pot (that looks like a huge amount of oil, in the photo, but it isn’t—that is a really tiny pot). You should probably use a pan you don’t care about too much—one with an uncoated surface is best. Really heat this oil up. You want it shimmering. Add the mustard seeds, and wait until you can hear them start to pop. Add in the cumin seeds and the red pepper flakes, and cook this for another minute or so. If you are using ground cumin rather than cumin seeds, like we are here, you’ll want to add that at the very last moment. Leave it in more than 20 seconds or so and it may burn. Either way, this oil will smell very fragrant. Pour it into the lentil mixture and stir.
You can adjust the spiciness of this dish by adjust how many red pepper flakes you put in the oil. If you are cooking for people who don’t like spice, go very light on the red pepper flakes (and consider reducing the amount of mustard seeds too). Then each person can adjust his or her individual portion to taste by adding spices after the fact. The flavors won’t be as intense, but I think this is still a better option than not making the dish at all.
Add about 2 tsp of salt, starting with 1 tsp and then tasting until it is at your preferred level of saltiness. Aditya tells me that Indians are quite liberal with their use of salt. Don’t be afraid of salting this dish heavily. There are a lot of lentils here, lentils need quite a bit of salt, and it will probably provide 6-8 servings anyway, so even at 2 tsp for the entire pot you are only eating about 1/4 tsp of salt per serving.
Serve on top of your rice, and garnish with chives if you have them.
I hope you enjoy this dish as much as we do. If you do, please go make it for everyone you know. Even make it for people who don’t cook because it is too hard or takes too much time. I’m serious. This takes about 45 to 50 minutes from start to finish, but some of that is down time when you don’t really need to pay attention to anything except for giving things the occasional stir. And there are no complicated techniques here. There isn’t even that much to clean. Our greatest hope for this recipe is that someone, somewhere, will try it and get hooked on cooking.