Rainbow dal

If I ever ask my family what they fancy for dinner, more often than not the answer is dal. Ever since our time living in India, it has become a firm favourite for all of us. And we’re not the only ones as the page with my simple dal recipe (find it here) is one of the most frequently visited on the website.

As you have probably gathered by now, I love a bit of rainbow eating. Adding a variety of colourful vegetables to dishes can increase their micro and phytonutrient properties enormously. And dal is the perfect base for a rainbow make-over, so it just had to happen!

Just changing from white to red onion improves the phytonutrient profile, as the red pigment contains anthocyanins. These tiny chemicals help support cell functions and act as anti-oxidants, neutralising free radical activity. Essentially, they contribute to supporting our health. There are a huge number of different types of anthocyanins, and as with all phytonutrients they work best together as a team, hence why whole-foods are always the best option.

Sweet potatoes and spinach contains their own variety of micro and phytonutrients too, as does turmeric, tomato and the curry leaves. In fact this rainbow dal really is a veritable smorgasbord of pigments! Add in the fab fibre content and this dish really is one that will make both your taste-buds and your body buzz with joy!

The most important thing about this rainbow dal, though, is that it tastes gorgeous! Adding the extra vegetable gives it more body and texture, so all the senses are cared for. Serve it with a good dollop of dairy-free yoghurt and some steamed wholegrain rice and it will fill the hungriest of stomachs too.

So next time you’re cooking up a dal, bring a bit more rainbow power to the dinner table and give this one a go. Don’t forget to let me know how you get on. Enjoy!

Rainbow dal – serves 4
1 red onion
2 cloves garlic
2 medium tomatoes
2 medium or 1 large sweet potato
10-12 curry leaves
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
225g yellow split peas
750ml water
150g spinach
for the tempering:
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon black mustard seeds
4 dried red chillis and/or 2 fresh red chillis sliced lengthways
2cm piece of ginger thinly sliced
2 tablespoons fresh coriander

Chop the onion and tomatoes, finely chop the garlic. Peel and dice the sweet potato.

Heat a couple of tablespoons of water in the bottom of a medium sized saucepan until bubbling then add the onion. Lower the heat and sauté for 5 minutes, stirring to make sure it doesn’t burn. Add the chopped tomato, curry leaves and garlic and cook for another 5 minutes, then add the sweet potato. Simmer for a couple of minutes.

Stir in the ground tumeric, lentils or yellow split peas and a good pinch of salt. Leave to cook for a couple of minutes then add the water. Pop on the saucepan lid, bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 20 minutes or so until the water is absorbed, the sweet potato soft and the dal is thick and sumptuous. Add the spinach leaves and cook for another couple of minutes until wilted.

Heat a small non-stick pan and add the cumin and black mustard seeds. Once the seeds start to pop and release their aromas (about 1 1/2 minutes), turn off the heat and add the dried red chillis and ginger. Shake the pan and let them cook in the residual pan heat. After a couple of minutes, tip the tempering into the dal, stir well to combine and heat through gently.

Finally, add a squeeze of lemon juice and the fresh chopped coriander then serve.

Curry comfort

Our time living in Indian widened our horizons in many ways. Food wise, we discovered a cornucopia of different South Indian ‘curries’ most of which we had never come across before in the UK. Most curry houses in the UK serve North Indian, Bangladeshi or Pakistani routed food, adapted to the British taste (lots of sauce!). These dishes tend to be rich, tomato based, heavy with cream and featuring meat. South Indian food consists of a huge amount of vegetarian dishes, many enhanced with coconut, either milk or freshly ground, making them rich but not heavy.

Coconut is a regular ingredient on my blog – I love it, not only for it’s wonderful creamy taste, but it’s amazing health benefits. Coconut meat and milk are high in fat, there’s no getting away from it, but the fat is medium-chain saturated fats which research shows is actually health promoting rather than detrimental like many saturated animal fats. And of course, being plant based, it contains no cholesterol, a fact my friend was surprised about when I told her. Placed on a cholesterol reducing diet by her GP (better than being given statins that’s for sure), it was on the list of food to avoid due to  it’s high cholesterol content. In fact the oil in coconut helps improve a person’s cholesterol, increasing healthy HDL cholesterol.

Lauric acid is one of the main fatty acids in coconut; this converts to other compounds in the body and had an array of beneficial effects including acting as an anti-viral, anti-bacterial and anti-fungal and if eaten as coconut meat, the fibre promotes these properties, contributing to a healthy gut.

I love to make vegetable Malabar curry on a cold and windy day as there’s just something so warming and comforting about it. Rich and flavoursome, I feel wrapped in a soothing warmth. Malabar curries come from the Kerala area, often as a fish curry. Although truly Indian, it has Chinese roots and developed along the coast. The warm, comforting element comes from the inclusion of a mixture of cinnamon, cloves and cardamom, all medicinal herbs in their own right. Cloves have an anti-inflammatory effect as well as a mild anaesthetic (oil of cloves for toothache), cinnamon has compounds that aid digestion and help reduce muscle spasm (amongst other effects) and cardamon is sometimes used as an anti-depressant.

Make this super healthy by using red, orange and green vegetables, packed full of nutrients and anti-oxidants to keep the winter bugs at bay. And of course by using coconut, it’s completely dairy free.
Although there is a long list of ingredients in this recipe, it’s actually pretty easy to make. You can buy a malabar curry mix from your local Indian store, but be careful, as these can contain a large amount of salt. It’s pretty easy to make your own, so I make it fresh each time. Serve this up on a blustery evening with a warm roti or pile of steamed rice (brown of course!) and let yourself be enveloped with a soothing warmth which, with any luck, will transport your mind, if not your body, to warmer climes.

Vegetable Malabar Curry<
Spice mix:2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
2 whole cloves
4 cardamon pods
Vegetable mix:
1 teaspoon olive oil
1/4 teaspoon black mustard seeds
1 spring curry leaves
Asafoetida – pinch (miss if you can’t find it)
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon chilli powder
1 tablespoon fresh grated ginger
2 onions chopped
2 fresh tomatoes, pureed
1 cup chopped carrot or sweet potato
1 cup green veg (beans, broccoli)
couple of handfuls sweetcorn or peas
1 tin coconut milk
up to 1 cup warm water
fresh coriander to garnish
First, make your spice mix. Bash the cardamon pods in a pestle and mortar to release the seeds. Grind seeds with the cloves until fine and mix in the cinnamon.

Heat the oil in a large pan and cook the mustard seed, asafoetida and curry leaves until the seeds splutter. Add the onion and ginger and cook until the onion is soft. Pour in the pureed tomatoes and a pinch of salt, and cook for 10 minutes. Stir in the chilli powder, turmeric, spice mix, vegetables and mix well to coat. Pour in the water and simmer with the lid on until the vegetables are cooked.
Turn off the heat and pour in the coconut milk. Stir well and heat on a low flame for a few minutes. Season with salt and pepper as needed, sprinkle the fresh coriander over the top, and enjoy

Dal or lentil – it’s a name thing

Before I came to India, I thought lentils were either red, puy and occasionally green, and that dal was a soupy kind of spicy dish. Then I went shopping in the local supermarket and discovered a whole array of “dal” with different names, some of those being the same product but hailing from a different part of India and called by the local name.

Just to make it even more confusing, whole lentils tend to be called “gram”, a generic name for pulses, so includes chickpeas and other dried peas I hadn’t come across before – cow pea and horse gram, both of which are really tasty (I have a great little easy cow pea dish I’ll share with you soon). Once the pulse is split, and it’s outer coating shed, the gram becomes a dal, or a lentil, in the right form for cooking dal. Confused? Me too!

I’ve worked out there are four main ‘dals’:
yellow dal: or yellow split peas as I knew them in the UK, or toor/tuvar dal in Hindi. This is split pigeon pea and used most commonly for your standard dal

mung dal which comes from the mung bean, a pale green lentil that has a real earthy look to it. Mung beans are a deep green when whole but paler and flecked with white when split

masoor dal, or red split lentils, the one I am most familiar with

urad dal, which comes from black gram, but is white when split. This is most common in South India and usually soaked and ground to make dosas and idlis, iconic breakfast items.

Whatever the name or colour, dals are really healthy, a tiny powerhouse of nutritious goodies, packed with protein, fibre, calcium, magnesium, iron, potassium and a whole array of B vitamins. Dal is made up of 20-30% protein, better than most meat products but without the saturated fat and cholesterol. It is not, however, a complete protein in the same way as meat. Pulses are low in the essential amino acids (the building blocks of protein) methionine and cysteine. So they should be eaten with another food which is high in these missing amino acids. Traditionally, dal is eaten with rice or some form of bread – chapati, roti etc. Whole rice and whole wheat are high in both methionine and cysteine, but low in lysine, another essential amino acid. Pulses just happen to be teaming with lysine and so dal and rice or chapati is the perfect dish!

Due to their high dietary fibre content, dal/lentils are very good for your bowels, but do have a reputation for creating rather a lot of wind – urad dal is the worst offender apparently, and mung the least and is often given to convalescents as it’s easy on the digestion.  I always buy organic dals which are really widely available here, and only a few rupees more than the non-organic version.

The key to a good tasty dal is the tempering – the seeds and spices that are fried separately and then added at the end. If you want a low fat dish, go easy on the oil otherwise it will become loaded with fat. Ghee is often used for the tempering, which gives it a distinctive flavour but is pretty high in fat. Theoretically, ghee is non-dairy, but I’m not convinced so avoid using it at home. I’ve tried various different recipes since I’ve been in India, some more successful than others (dal and the pressure cooker just don’t seem to work for me!). This is my favourite – big fat juicy tomatoes are the key to this dish!

Dal fry/Tarka Dal
1 cup of red split lentils, rinsed well and drained
1 finely chopped onion
2 x juicy tomatoes
1 -2 cloves minced garlic
1/4 tsp tumeric
salt
(lemon juice)
For the tempering:
1/2 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp mustard seeds
1-2 dried red chilli or 1 fresh green chilli
2 inch piece ginger, julienned
pinch of hing (asafoetida)
handful curry leaves
fresh coriander for garnishing
First, heat a couple of tablespoons of water in a pan and fry the onion and salt for a few minutes then add the garlic and keep stirring until it’s lightly brown. Add the tomatoes and cook for 2 minutes. Add the lentils and turmeric, heat through and add 3 cups (ish) of water – if you want a thicker dal, add less than 3. Cook on a low heat for 20-25 minutes until the lentils are soft and mushy. In a separate pan, heat the cumin and mustard seeds. Once they start to pop, add all the other ingredients except the coriander and cook for a few minutes. Tip the tempering into the cooked lentils, mix together and simmer for a couple of minutes, adding a squeeze of lemon juice to help make the proteins more available, garnish with the coriander and serve with cooked brown rice or some whole wheat chapatis.