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
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.