These nourishing pots of lentils can be as simple or as extravagant as you’d like.
By Tejal Rao
My grandmother puts a handful of whole peanuts along with the split pigeon peas in her Gujarati-style toor dal, so they boil until they’re a little tender and plump. And my mum fries garlic, green chiles and cumin seeds in ghee to season a pot of simmered, salted split mung.
Those are my most reliable everyday dals, the ones I cook when I’m not sure what to make but need something simple, delicious and nourishing. A soupy dal on hot basmati rice, with some yogurt and pickle if I’ve got those in the fridge, and an extra spoonful of ghee on top. It’s consistently perfect.
Even if you’ve just got lentils and a couple of spices lying around in the pantry, you can make a good dal. The technique that creates so much flavor is the tempering, or frying those spices in fat, and tipping it all into the pot of hot dal — my family calls this a vagaar in Gujarati, but the method has many names.
If my produce drawer is stocked, I might build the dal out with more bells and whistles, adding in some chopped tomatoes or greens. See the cookbook author Meera Sodha’s delicious Sri Lankan-style dal made from quick-cooking red lentils and topped with sautéed kale and coconut.
While the dal and rice are simmering, I like to prep a spontaneous side or topping of seasoned vegetables to go with it.
Try these dal and topping combos:
split mung + raw grated carrot with lime juice, cashew nuts and shredded coconut
split yellow pigeon peas + sautéed chard with red-chile flakes and toasted sesame seeds
red lentils + sautéed chopped green beans with cumin seeds, fresh green chiles and curry leaves
Curry leaves aren’t essential to every dal recipe — I make dals without them all the time — but if you don’t usually cook with them, and you happen to spot a little curry plant, or even a bundle of frozen leaves at the grocery store, it’s worth taking some home and letting them change your life. They have a toasty, cinnamon-eucalyptus flavor that’s unlike anything else, and just a few will infuse the whole pot.
In Mumbai, when I dropped by my friend Sana’s house for dinner, her family had made dal seasoned with a piece of hot charcoal dropped in ghee. It was served alongside so many other stunning dishes, including a beautiful stuffed okra, but it was somehow the star of the table, the smokiness making the dal both sumptuous and substantial.
That’s a bit of a pro move — the hot charcoal, the smoking — but the point is that dal doesn’t have to be basic weeknight cooking. It can also be extremely luxurious when you want it to be, like Sanjeev Kapoor’s rich urad dal simmered with lots of butter and cream.
Toor Dal (Split Yellow Pigeon Peas)
Go to the recipe.
Sri Lankan Dal With Coconut and Lime Kale
Go to the recipe.
Lalla Mussa Dal
Go to the recipe.
One More Thing!
Once you get the hang of tempering, you can use the technique in so many other ways. I asked my colleague Priya Krishna about one of her everyday temperings, or as her family calls them, tadkas.
“One of my universal tadkas is cumin seeds, hing, a dried red chile, and a little red-chile powder. I put it in dal, but also on cheese toast, on nachos, and I use it to finish tomato soup. It’s basically like a compound butter, and it’s really delicious.” — Priya Krishna
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