What’s up with dal? A good question. In India, the term (also spelled daal, dhal, and dahl) refers to pulses (dried legumes that include beans, lentils, and peas) and is also used to refer to a stew made of said legumes. It can get a little confusing, but trust me: The confusion is worth it.
For centuries, dal has been an essential part of India’s rich culinary tradition, served at just about every meal. It’s nourishing, inexpensive, healthy, protein-rich, and, most important, harmoniously balanced when infused with herbs and spices. The variation in regional dal dishes is so vast that you could make a different dal every day and not repeat for months. Beyond soups/stews, dal can also be used in chutneys, pancakes, salads, and desserts, as well as sprouted and/or ground into flour—the options are seemingly endless.
On their own, dal are rather undistinctive. It’s the spices, herbs, and vegetables you add that pack flavor and give dal different personalities. Tadka (also referred to as tarka or chaunk), the process of tempering spices and herbs in oil/ghee, is an essential technique when preparing dal. To prepare a tadka, whole spices such as coriander, cumin, or mustard seeds are added to hot oil or ghee and cooked until they sizzle, turning reddish brown and fragrant. Next, ingredients such as onion, ginger, garlic, tomatoes, and fresh chiles are added to the hot oil. Ground spices are last, since they tend to burn easily. Finally, the tadka is added to the cooked dal, and that’s when the magic happens. The hot spices and infused oil permeate the cooked dal, producing an incredibly aromatic and flavorful dish.
Shopping for Dal
In any Indian grocery store worth its salt (in New York, my favorite is Patel Brothers), you’ll find shelf after shelf lined with dal. The choices might seem daunting at first glance, but upon closer inspection you may recognize many of them. Some of the most common dal in Indian cooking include mung beans, chickpeas, lentils, split peas, adzuki beans, kidney beans, and pigeon peas.
How to Prep
Now that you’re stocked up, it’s time to do some cooking. First off, before you cook your dal, you’ll want to sort through them for any pebbles or debris. Next, put the dal in a sieve and rinse until the water runs clear. At this point, whole beans should be soaked overnight, which makes them more digestible and speeds up cooking times. Certain dal (like those that are skinned and split in half) do not necessarily need to be soaked. Traditionally, certain Indian recipes call for the split variety versus whole. The skinned and split variety require a shorter cooking time.
The cooking time for dal will vary depending on the type of dal, its age (i.e., how long it’s been sitting on the shelf), and the hardness of your water. Old dal may take twice as long as fresh; just remember to add more water if it takes longer for the dal to cook. Hard water, which has a high mineral content, also increases cooking time.
While a pressure cooker is not essential for cooking dal, it does make the process easier and quicker (resulting in perfectly cooked dal in 20 percent of the time needed to cook dal the traditional way—that is, on the stove top). In addition to traditional pressure cookers, there are also electric pressure cookers on the market (such as the popular Instant Pot). Indian pressure cookers are a little different. They regularly release steam in what is referred to as “whistles,” and the time it takes to pressure-cook something is described according to how many whistles you hear. While I own many a cooking appliance, a pressure cooker is not among them, so I opt for the stove top method. This works well; it just takes longer.
Traditionally, cooking dal in a tandoor oven lends a smoky flavor, but you can still achieve that smoky flavor with a little piece of coal using a method known as the Dhungar technique. You simply heat a piece of coal over a flame until red hot. Then you place the hot coal in a heatproof bowl or hollowed-out onion and add that to your pot of food. Drizzle the coal with a little oil or ghee, and it will begin to smoke. Quickly cover the pot and let the smoky flavor infuse your dal.