The cabinet that holds my legumes is getting nearly full, primarily because I have a bit of a control problem when I go into Indian markets. So many things look interesting and/or tasty that my basket quickly fills up. The many kinds of Indian dals are especially enticing (see D is for Dalimbay Bhatt by Nupur of One Hot Stove for a beautiful “gallery of dals”), but in the kitchen I all too often stick with one or two varieties. Given that I currently have about 10 different kinds (as seen in the above photo), I need to improve the my dal-cooking versatility. (Top row, from left to right, are toovar dal, whole mung beans, moong dal, split mung beans, split and peeled mung beans, channa dal. Bottom row jars, from left to right, are whole urad dal, split and peeled urad dal, split urad dal, and masoor dal.)I thought it would be interesting and tasty to explore the elements in my “dal house” during the month of December. Each week I will cook a different dal and post something about the method and results. Ideally, it will be something new for me. However, in the first week I’m cooking one of my old favorites: Masoor dal with Bengali spices and tomatoes.
Part 1: Masoor dal
Split masoor dal are a coral pink color, and come in two general sizes: small and large. Small are about 2-3 mm across, large are 3-5 mm across. They cook quickly and do not require soaking. The flavor is mild but distinctive. I have also seen this dal labelled as masar, masur, and masor.
Masoor Dal with Bengali Spices and Tomatoes
Adapted from Classic Indian Vegetarian and Grain Cooking, by Julie Sahni
1 1/2 cups masoor dal
4 1/2 cups water
A few fresh hot chilies
1 t. turmeric
1 t. salt
1 large onion, diced
1 cup tomatoes, chopped fine (fresh or canned)
1 T. grated ginger
Vegetable oil or ghee
1 tablespoon panch phoron mix (see note below)
5 dry bay leaves
5 dried red chilies
The cooking process requires several steps: cooking the dal; cooking the onion, ginger and tomato; frying spices in oil; and assembling everything.
Cooking the Dal
Sort through the dal for rocks and other non-dal debris. Rinse the dal thoroughly, then put them in a large pot and cover with the water. Add the turmeric and salt. Turn the heat to high, and bring the mixture to a boil. Be watchful when the mixture nears the boiling point because legumes have an annoying tendency to boil over violently. When the mixture comes to a boil, turn the heat to medium-low and cook, partially covered, for about 20-30 minutes. Stir occasionally.
Cooking the Onion-tomato-ginger mixture
In another pot or saute pan, heat some vegetable oil or ghee over medium heat. Add the onions, and cook for about 10 minutes, stirring often, until they are soft. Add the tomato and ginger, reduce the heat to medium, and cook, stirring often, for about 10 minutes more. If the dal has finished cooking, pour the onion mixture into the dal. Otherwise, set aside until the dal has finished cooking (then pour into the dal).
Making the spiced oil
In a small skillet, heat some vegetable oil or ghee (2-4 T.) over high heat. When the oil is hot but not smoking, add the panch phoron mix. Keep a pot lid handy in case the mustard seeds spatter. Stir or shake the mixture for about 20 seconds, then add the bay leaves and chiles, cook for a little longer.
Assembling the dish
Pour the spice mixture into the dal. It might splatter a little bit, so keep back when you pour. Stir the dal, and simmer for a few minutes before serving. Serve with basmati rice and a vegetable side dish.
Panch phoron is a Bengali spice mixture containing equal quantities of five spices. My version is equal parts cumin seeds, fenugreek seeds, black mustard seeds, black onion (a.k.a. Kalonji, Nigella) seeds and fennel seeds. Variations exist, with anise seed instead of fennel seeds, for example, or celery seed replacing mustard seeds.
Because it is so smooth and well-cooked, this dal freezes nicely for long storage. I typically make a large batch and freeze about 3 or 4 lunch-sized portions for those weeks when I don’t have time to freshly prepare a lunch.