I remember the first time I had homemade dal. It was my friend Maya’s recipe, learned from her mom. I watched her make it, in a cramped and dingy dorm kitchen, shoulder-to-shoulder with two other friends chopping vegetables. It was blustery outside, and we had decided to give ourselves a break from disappointing dining hall food with a real home-cooked dinner. I’m sure we had other dishes–in fact, I’m sure I made one of the other dishes–but that dal stole the show. I’d never had anything like it: deeply and warmly spiced, flowing like soup but with a soft thickness to it. We ate it with rice, out of mismatched bowls with flimsy forks, sitting at a wobbly table under the sickly yellow lights of our dorm basement, and it was perfection.
I’ve tried making dal at home a couple of times since then, but it never ends up speaking to me the way that first bowl did. I have a tendency to over-spice and underseason, making dals that are aggressive but weirdly bland, and watery instead of souplike. For a while, I shifted my focus elsewhere. But then it got to be the doldrums of February, gray and nippy and generally dull, and suddenly I needed something spicy and fragrant and full of legumes. I needed dal, desperately, I realized one day on the train on the way home from work. So I turned to Mark Bittman–the man whose food I always want to eat–and found out something really cool.
It turns out, dal isn’t just as simple as cooking legumes with spices and hoping for the best. There’s a texture issue involved. Great dals–including the one Maya made, I’m pretty sure–are cooked and then whipped with a whisk, to break down some of the solids into starchy mush. The result is a half-pureed melange with exactly the soupy-smooth quality I remember from that dinner in college. Add that to a technique I’d already tried, making a fried onion and spice mixture called a tadka to stir in at the last minute, and you get really good dal.
This dal I cobbled together from Mark Bittman’s article rests on red lentils, which have become a staple in my pantry. I doubt this version is especially authentic, but it’s definitely flavorful, with sweet onions and smoky-crisp cumin seeds running all through it. It’s nice enough on its own, but extra-satisfying spooned over a bed of rice. And, if you have no rice in the house, it’s also delicious swirled into a bowl of plain salted oatmeal–something I just discovered tonight.
Masoor Dal Tadka (serves 4 with rice)
Inspired by The New York Times
Note: You can use an Indian mathani or Mexican molinillo, if you have one, to puree the dal. If not, a wire whisk works fine.
1 cup red lentils (masoor dal), rinsed and picked over for stones
3 cups water
1 tbsp minced or finely grated ginger
1/2 tsp turmeric
1/4 tsp ground cardamom
Salt to taste
2 tbsp peanut oil, vegetable oil, or ghee (clarified butter)
2 tsp whole cumin seeds
1 tsp whole fennel seeds
1/4 tsp crushed red chili flake, or to taste
1/2 medium white or yellow onion, diced
2 plum tomatoes, diced OR 3/4 cup canned diced tomatoes (about half of a 15 oz can), drained
Freshly squeezed lemon juice to taste
Chopped fresh cilantro, for garnish
Cooked white or brown rice for serving
In a large saucepan or small stockpot, combine lentils, water, ginger, turmeric, and cardamom. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, uncovered, for 20-25 minutes, or until the lentils are just about falling apart. The mixture should be slightly soupy; if it looks like it’s getting too dry, add a splash of water. When the lentils are cooked, turn off the heat and stir in salt.
While the dal cooks, heat oil or ghee in a medium skillet over medium-high heat. When the oil shimmers, add cumin seeds, fennel seeds, and chili flake, and let the seeds pop and sizzle for a few seconds. Add onion and cook, stirring occasionally, for 5-6 minutes, or until the onions are golden. Add tomatoes and continue cooking for another 3-5 minutes, or until the liquid in the pan is gone.
Use a whisk or other implement (see note) to stir the dal vigorously until it’s creamy and thickened. Swirl the onion-spice mix into the pureed dal, and stir in lemon juice. Garnish with cilantro and serve over rice.
The dal will keep in an airtight container in the fridge for up to a week, or in the freezer for 4-6 months. You can store the dal before or after mixing in the tadka, depending on whether you want a fresh burst of flavor or something deeper and mellower.