Try Making Dal, Since You Freaks Are So Obsessed With Beans

The reward is the end product, but the journey is pleasant, too.
May 1, 2020, 2:06pm
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Let me be clear: I'm not asking for more representation in the Great Bean Freakout of 2020, but it's a great time to try making a dish with an underrated cousin of the bean. Consider making dal.

Dal is a simple, one-pot, protein-packed dish that signals that you probably know at least one country outside of America. Dal is the Hindi word for lentils, and also denotes a dish made with lentils, which are part of the legume family. Technically, lentils are a "pulse," the seed part of a legume; other "pulses" include beans and peas. That dish varies per household: there is dal makhani, dal tadka, dal fry, and those are just the ones I'm aware of. The dal I know is a true comfort, not just in the end product, but because the journey there is quite pleasant as well.

The process involves toasting aromatics (in Indian cuisine, this is called the "tadka"), and overseeing individual lentils disintegrate from individual circles into a smooth, turmeric-tinged mush. It's a physical illustration of an individual transitioning to a more collectivist culture. More importantly, it's an extremely accessible entry into Indian cooking, which is both pocket-friendly and health-conscious.

When considering the Taste to Protein to Cost ratio (and in quarantine, when are you not considering this ratio?) dal is hard to beat. Even if you don't have the exact ingredients, you can approximate each of the components to make a colorful and savory vegetarian dish. The main components are simply aromatics, spices, lentils, tomato. I never received a written recipe for this dish; when my mom came to visit me in Seattle a few years ago, a friend in the building asked if she'd teach him how to make dal, and I was in the same apartment, playing with a dog. I don't have the recipe written down, nor do I know the proportions for any of the ingredients.

By my recollection, the process goes as follows: in a sauce pan, toast some spices with onions and garlic in oil, then add the lentils (that you've soaked overnight, ideally) with some water, turmeric, and then some tomatoes and cilantro. Towards the end, if you want extra color and nutrition, you can add spinach. It's really that simple—and it's not like you have to carefully tend to the dish like a pan of risotto; you just need to let the liquids slowly cook down, and the individual lentils are no longer identifiable. Serve with rice. If this is too abstract, you can also take a look at a full recipe for a red lentil dal.

Once you have a general idea of what goes into a proper dal, you can make all types of bastardized versions based on pantry staples you've stocked in one of the last four thousand trips to the grocery store. For example, when I didn't have fresh tomatoes a few weeks ago, I used a cup of pureed tomatoes, left over from a pasta sauce I'd made the week before. And though my mom's recipe calls for mustard seeds in the tadka, I don't have those, so I use cumin seeds.

A tadka of ghee, onion, and cumin seed.

In my opinion, dal is like chili, the best kind is a slop-like consistency (much smoother than chili) and there are tons of different spices and ingredients you can add and still end up with a delicious result. Other Indians may disagree, and that's fine, we are not a monolith.

Be warned, if you stray too far off the path, your Indian friends might tell you that's not how to make a real dal. At that point, you can explain that "dal" just means "lentil." Now, you have even more food for yourself, because your friends will be so disgusted you've explained their culture to them, that they will not have an appetite. Which is fair.

There are multiple types of lentils, and they are not all equal, in terms of color, flavor, or cooking time. I grew up in a masoor dal-exclusive household (split red lentils), and my palate is immediately disappointed by any other type (toor dal, also known as pigeon peas, make awful dal, in my opinion.) But they all work, and you likely don't have this bias in your 'buds. Either way, you'll want your lentils to soak for at least 6 hours, to encourage the mush-ening to occur during cooking.

Given the core component of the dish is, in fact, the magical fruit, you'll want some ginger, to prevent the dish from being particularly audible later on. I didn't have ginger in this last go-round, so I used ginger garlic paste. The aromatics are usually mustard seeds toasted in canola oil, though I usually don't have those. I've used cumin powder and olive oil, and most recently, cumin seeds toasted in ghee.

My finished dal with rice.

This is a recommendation and not a recipe, so I've already said too much. I don't want to backseat drive your vegetarian journey to India. Simply stand over the pot, and let the aroma of toasted spices and masala travel up into your nostrils, and perfect your own version to share when potlucks aren't illegal anymore.