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Above: Clockwise from top: chana daal sundal; yogurt; kichri with massour daal; buttery moong daal. Bottom: Clockwise from top right: whole red lentils, whole mung beans, urad daal, moong daal, a rice and daal mixture, massour daal. Photos: Karsten Moran.


The How and Why of Daal





I went to my local Indian grocery the other day looking for daal, but I couldn’t decide which daal to buy.

There were so many kinds to choose from, all enticing -- bright orange massour daal, canary yellow chana daal, ivory hued urad daal and straw-colored moong daal, among others. In the end, I bought 10 one-pound packages, each a different color.

Daal is as common in Punjabi and Indian cuisine as mashed potatoes are in Minnesota. The word means dried legume, as in lentil or pea. Or chickpea or fava bean. An edible seed that grows in a pod and is hulled and split. Daal is also the name for the thick purée, stew or soup made from these legumes.

It may be a nutritious, humble meal served with rice, or it may be just one of several dishes served as part of a more complex meal. It is found on every Punjabi and Indian table every day, rich or poor, rain or shine.

As a lifelong lover of all dried beans, I completely understand the attraction; the word daal, for me, is synonymous with delicious. I could easily imagine eating it daily.

The simplest version of daal is a breeze to make.

Put split lentils in a pot with water, salt and a little turmeric and simmer them. It doesn’t much matter which kind of daal you use -- most cook in an hour or less, some in as little as 20 minutes. If making daal becomes a habit, you may consider using a pressure cooker, as most Punjabi / Indian cooks do. It cuts the cooking time in half. But I don’t mind waiting for the daal to be done because I’m usually puttering around the kitchen with other projects.

You want to cook the daal until it is completely soft and thick and collapses into a rough purée. For a velvety, creamy texture, whirl it in the blender. If you prefer a bit more texture, beat it with a whisk for a minute to a porridge-like consistency.

At this point, the daal is edible but bland. It’s time to amp up the taste with a technique all Punjabi / Indian cooks know: sizzle a handful of spices in hot ghee to make a tarrka. (Compare this to the western technique of adding garlic and parsley to a skillet full of sautéed green beans or potatoes for a final blast of seasoning. Not exactly the same, but you get the idea.)

The spice blend varies depending on the dish, but it can include mustard seeds, fennel seeds, whole coriander or dozens of other aromatics. The only spice featured in this daal is cumin seed, known as jeera, along with chopped garlic, chiles and finely diced onion. These are heated in a small amount of ghee or oil until lightly browned and fragrant.

The ghee and spices are stirred into the daal, transforming it into something sublime. The tarrka has done its work; now we have a buttery, cumin-scented daal shot through with flavor. The process is not much more complicated than making a pot of split pea soup, but the result is far more tantalizing.

There are many daal-centric dishes beyond this one. Khichrri, a savory combination of daal and rice, is a favorite of mine. Instead of being served side by side, basmati rice and massour daal (split red lentils) are cooked together in one pot. Traditionally it is served with a spoonful of yogurt, but khichrri can also accompany roast chicken or braised lamb, like a pilaf. (Leftovers make delicious fried rice.)

For an easy snack that trumps popcorn, may I suggest a spicy bowl of a sundal? On the beaches of South India, sundal is sold in paper cones by itinerant vendors -- great for nibbling with a cold beverage. You make it with larger daal, like chana (chickpeas) or chana daal (another type of quick-cooking chickpea, hulled and split). After being boiled until tender, the peas are drained, then sautéed with mustard seed, curry leaves, chiles and grated coconut. Watch it disappear.

There are thousands of ways to cook daal ... 


[Courtesy: The New York Times. Edited for]

March 6, 2014





Conversation about this article

1: Sangat Singh  (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), March 06, 2014, 6:13 PM.

"Mungi di daal" is also referred as "Pathic Daal", because it is cooked more often than not in Guru ka Langar.

2: Gurdarshan Singh Kler  (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), March 07, 2014, 6:39 AM.

@ #1 - That "mungi di daal" cooked in the gurdwara will always taste better than the one made at home. We did a test once, asking this auntie who cooked mungi di daal for the Police Depot Gurdwara (pulapol), to cook the daal the same way at home as in the gurdawara. The taste was different. Her family confirmed that her daal cooked in the gurdwara always tasted better. Must be the blessing of the Guru or the added elements of seva and sangat in Guru ka Langar.

3: Harbir Singh Grewal (Auckland, New Zealand ), March 07, 2014, 12:47 PM.

The gurdwara langar always tastes the best due to the joint effort. Contrary to the saying, 'too many cooks spoil the broth'. Very well written, David. I just can't imagine my palate sans daal.

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