I’m not certain there is such a thing as perfect dal, though in accordance to Felicity Cloake’s recent commentary in the Guardian - there’s certainly some recipes contending for the role.
Dal, like most Indian foods - will vary with regards to the lentils used and how it’s produced. It presents us with one of our staple foods and in a sense, is both the food of the masses - yet laced with elegance and sophistication.
Because dal, in principle is easy to make, some people are quick to look at is a poor person’s dish, when in fact it transcends most cultural and class boundaries. It’s almost akin to Ratatouille for the French. However, whenever dal is presented, I often wonder why we haven’t got something a little more tantalizing on offer - like matter paneer or pau bhaji? But the question is, is dal really the lazy option - or are we just not giving it enough care and attention it deserves?
Dal can be a bit of milestone for novices coming to terms with Indian cooking. Master it and you can go on to master many of the other complexities in Indian cuisine. It is, in essence, the bedrock of Indian cooking, laying down the foundation for many other elaborate curries that come thereafter. Yet one considers the millions of people that eat it across the world everyday, you can’t help but wonder about the special art to this simple, yet effective lentil soup. To start, here’s a break-down of a traditional but typical dal process. There are a range of lentils to pick from, though the chana lentil is the one used most often - giving dal its distinct yellow colour.
- Chana lentil (typically used, yellow)
- Maa Chana lentils (often mixed with the above, black)
- Mungh lentils (round and wholesome, green).
- Traditional dal can be made from any number of lentils. The initial process is the take whatever quantity you’re working with (depending on how many you wish to serve) and soak it in water overnight. People will do this for various lengths - depending on the nature of the lentil. The general rule will be, the more potent the lentil, the longer you leave it to soak. The purpose of soaking, my mother informs, is to allow the lentil to naturally release its gas through the water’s pressure. There’s nothing worse than sitting too closely to someone exclusively on a lentil diet.
- The lentils are then boiled in the same water. You can do this in a pressure cooker if you’re short of time, and of course if you’ve got one. It all depends on how many people you intend on feeding.
- Whilst boiling, you add your spices and seasoning to choice, Turmeric is the base spice, giving dal it’s distinctive yellow colour, though of course you can vary from this. Salt, pepper, garam masala, chillies - can all be added to personal taste.
- The mixture is kept boiling until the lentils are fully cooked and the spices are fully immersed. Depending on the amount of dal you’re making - this can take up to about an hour. Dal’s that are made from split lentils can cook quicker. There’s a greater surface area and a smaller size of lentil. Those that are whole, can take longer for the water to penetrate.
Following this - you can go one of two ways - eat as is for a completely healthy, though slightly simple lentil soup. However, if you want the full on intense Indian dal experience you go on to full Tadhka mode.
- In a separate pan, warm some oil, butter or ghee. Add some Jeera (Cumin), crushed garlic and allow it to gently warm, but not overcook. To this, we add some chopped or shredded ginger (I prefer to mince the ginger, as personally, I find it a bit offensive in whole chunks). You can also add a chopped onion to taste. Onions and chillies are the basis of most good Tadhkas. The notion of a tadkha is to create a base for any dish to sit on.
- When the mixture begins to turn a golden brown, you can add fresh diced tomatoes. This is entirely optional. Some people prefer not to include tomatoes, though they add colour and interest to the dish. If you’re extra fancy, you can use peppers or both. You may even decide to skin the peppers or tomatoes - so as not to have the rolled up skins floating about in the dal afterwards.
- When the tomatoes are lightly cooked, you can add the tadhka mixture to the cooked lentils. Leave both mixtures, to simmer together for about twenty minutes and your dal is ready.
- To garnish, you can add a splash of colour - for us, this is typically chopped coriander leaves.
A health conscious alternative to the above is to include the tadkha ingredients as part of the initial dal boiling process. This is a way of also quickening the process, though traditionally, dal was a day’s work - seen as a celebratory - yet comfort food. I’ve often had it in the winter as a warming dish, or in the summer as an alternative to heavy food. It’s also great when you have a cold. There are hundreds of variations to the above process, and of course you can try similar things with different beans and pulses. Dal Makhni will always be my favourite dal, but that’s a whole new recipe to explore.