South Indian-Style DalAdd a Comment / November 24, 2014
When I lived on East Fourth Street in Manhattan, I knew dal mostly as a mild lentil side to the similarly mild curries served at any of the dozen or so North Indian restaurants lining nearby East Sixth Street, also called Indian Restaurant Row. Then I moved a few blocks uptown and started exploring the slightly more upscale restaurants in the East Twenties, in the area known as Curry Hill.
I found a favorite, a South Indian restaurant with a dal so spicy and full of flavor that it kept me coming back for more. South Indian food changed my life: One, because it opened up a new world of gluten-free dishes, such as dosas, and curries without the cream you’ll find most North Indian curries swimming in, and two, because it was at that spicy-dal restaurant that I met my husband and culinary partner, Nash Patel. This is his version of dal, which you can adjust according to how spicy you like it. We cook our dal in virgin coconut oil or ghee rather than the cheap vegetable oils that sadly have come to replace many of the traditional fats used in the Indian kitchen.
The secret to a tasty dal is in what Indians call tempering, a process in which spices are added one at a time to hot oil to bring out their flavors; the spice oil is poured over the dal at the end and infuses the dish with the spices. All of the ingredients, including the small green chiles and curry leaves unique to Indian cooking, can be found at Indian and international groceries, or use the substitutions recommended in the Notes below.
Serve over rice or another grain for a full a meal, or as a side to any number of entrees. Or add water or stock to turn your dal into an Indian-style lentil soup. Dal makes a natural accompaniment to Ginger-Garlic Fish Fry.
- 1 cup split toor dal (see Notes), soaked overnight in filtered water to cover, drained, and rinsed
- 5 cups water
- 2 tomatoes, chopped
- 1 or 2 small green chiles, stemmed and cut in half
- ¼ teaspoon ground turmeric
- 3 tablespoons virgin coconut oil, ghee, or lard
- 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
- 1 teaspoon brown mustard seeds
- Pinch of asafetida (see Notes)
- 1 to 3 dried red chiles, crumbled
- Handful of fresh curry leaves (see Notes; optional)
- 4 unpeeled garlic cloves, crushed and chopped
- 1 medium red onion, chopped
- 1 teaspoon sea salt
- In a large saucepan, combine the dal, water, tomatoes, green chiles, and turmeric. Place over medium-high heat and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low, cover, and simmer for about 90 minutes, until the dal is soft and falling apart but not completely broken down.
- When the dal is just about ready, prepare for the tempering. Heat the oil in a medium saucepan (use a pan with fairly high sides to protect yourself from sputtering spices) over medium-high heat until hot but not smoking. Add the cumin seeds and mustard seeds and cook for about 30 seconds, until they are aromatic and the mustard seeds begin to pop. Add the asafetida and cook for 10 seconds. Add the dried red chiles and cook, stirring, for about 1 minute, until they darken in color and become crisp. Add the curry leaves and cook, stirring, for about 1 minute, until they darken in color and become crisp. Add the garlic and cook, stirring, for about 3 minutes, until it starts to brown. Add the red onion and cook, stirring, for about 5 minutes, until softened and well browned.
- Pour about 1 cup of the dal into the tempering pan to deglaze the spices. Pour everything back into the pot of dal and add the salt. Cook for 5 minutes to bring the flavors together. If you like a smooth dal, blend some or all of the mixture with an immersion blender or break it up a little with a potato masher.
- Toor dal is a mild medium-size yellow lentil; if unavailable, you can substitute split yellow lentils.
- Asafetida, also known as hing or devil’s dung (one whiff and you’ll understand), is a resin commonly used in Indian cooking. Its acrid, sulfury smell mellows out upon cooking and imparts an onion-garlic flavor to dishes. If unavailable, omit it or substitute onion or garlic powder. Be aware that powdered asafetida is typically blended with another ingredient, commonly the flour of wheat, rice, or fenugreek, so read ingredients carefully if you have food sensitivities.
- Curry leaves come from the curry tree; they look like small bay leaves and usually are sold on the branch. They add a slightly tangy and bitter flavor to recipes and bear no relation to the spice blend curry powder, and, unlike curry powder, they are a core component in South Indian cooking which actually is not a staple in the Indian kitchen. In the Tamil language the name translates to “leaf that is used to make curry,” because in a curry is where you are most likely to find them. Fresh curry leaves are vastly superior to dried curry leaves, so when you locate them, buy extra and store them in the freezer. There is no substitute for curry leaves, so if you can’t find them, omit them; you’ll still have a tasty dish without them.