The Dal Call:
Indian Comfort Food
by Kate Heyhoe
I never really appreciated a good dal till I started making them at home myself. If you've eaten dal at Indian restaurants, you know that they're usually served as a side dish, and can range from being very watery and soup-like to dry and dense, like mashed potatoes. They also make excellent meatless main courses, delicious and nutrient rich. But perhaps the dal you've experienced has been too watery, too bland, or just too uninspired to drive you into the kitchen to create your own. What a shame— and what a great opportunity to explore!
Dals are pulses— dried legumes such as lentils, split peas, and beans. Technically, the split pulses are called dals, but many Westerners refer to all Indian pulse dishes as dals. As side dishes, they balance the flavors of an entire Indian meal. If the meal is spicy hot, you may want a mildly seasoned, bland dal to offset the heat. Or, if you're serving the dal as a main course, accompanied by rice and bread, you may prefer a robust dal, with lots of ginger, chiles, and roasted spices to highlight it as the center of the plate.
After months of playing around with all sorts of dal recipes, I've come to consider it comfort food. There is something immensely satisfying (and nutritious) about grains and beans together. Whenever I eat red beans and rice, or Italy's famous soup pasta e fagioli, or Texas chili beans and chips, I feel good, whether they're made with or without meat. I feel the same way about a robust, thick dal, served with seasoned basmati rice and a shred of hot onion naan. But it took my personal hand in the kitchen, recreating the best recipes from the best Indian cookbooks, to understand what makes a truly remarkable dal.
First, I made a huge shopping trip to my friendly neighborhood Indian market (which is actually over 50 miles away, but never let distance stop a dedicated foodie). I think I made the shopkeeper's day. My expedition racked up $98.72 of every conceivable Indian dal, spice, masala, bread, chutney, and fresh herb (including curry leaves, coming in a future column). Actually, given the vast array of Indian ingredients, this sampling was really only an Indian starter kit, but it was enough to ramp my test kitchen into overdrive.
Second, I had to get over the intimidation of the foreign names and varieties of dal. Many different kinds of dal exist, and often one bean may have different names depending on if the bean is split, hulled, or whole, as in the case with mung beans. The good news is that in most cases, one dal can be substituted for another with relative ease. So I eventually stopped fixating on whether I had the right type of dal for a recipe and instead just plowed ahead. I've not had one disaster yet, and can now identify the dal varieties I personally like best.
Finally, I went to work. From Madhur Jaffrey to Indian websites, I experimented with dal recipes. As with pinto or black beans, you can cook up a dal dish simply, with just a few seasonings, and be done with it. Or, you can really go to town and season the pulses with a kettle full of flavorings. With my newly acquired Indian larder, full-tilt-boogie was the way to go for me. As I often say about spices and their potency, if you don't use 'em you lose 'em. Onward! with the right seasonings, the variations are endless, and endlessly delicious.
My favorite dal recipe is one inspired by Bharti Kirchner. My version, Cozy Toasted Yellow Dal, toasts yellow mung beans in a dry skillet, then layers the flavors into the dal in three separate stages, to create a complex, intricate weave of taste sensations. It starts out soupy, then thickens upon standing. I serve it with Basmati rice flecked with toasted cumin and black cumin seeds, but regular basmati rice tastes fine too. A spritz of lemon and a dollop of yogurt at table add extra tang.
Don't walk away just because I mentioned three stages of seasoning—this dish is easy to prepare, and if you don't have all the spices, don't worry! Substitute or omit them—the dish will still taste great. Think of it as a starter recipe to ramp up your confidence in cooking truly remarkable dal.
As with other legume dishes, dal freezes beautifully, so reheating a batch requires almost no labor. I keep a quart or so frozen— readily available for whenever I feel the need to heed my dal call.
Recipes & Tips:
Kate's Global Kitchen for March, 2000:
Copyright © 2000, Kate Heyhoe. All rights reserved.
This page created March 2000