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.