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Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Dal: Red Lentils with Bengali Spices

My breakfast: dal and fresh whole wheat tortilla chips
I am a huge fan of Indian food. All regions, vegetarian, not vegetarian. Doesn't matter. The spices in Indian food are sensually lush and totally addicting. The downsides of cooking Indian food are a) you need a lot of uncommon (to Americans) ingredients, and b) it's time-consuming. But, when I do it from scratch (rather than run down the street for Indian take-out), it's so so satisfying.

Dal means beans and vegetarian cooking in India is about richly spiced beans. Most people are familiar with lentil dal because it is served alongside the rice at many Indian restaurants. This recipe uses red lentils though you can substitute yellow split peas. Red lentils are smaller and more delicate than typical brown lentils. They do not cook up red - they cook up golden. They are bland on their own, soaking up Indian spices. They also cook down smooth so the dal is like a thick porridge. Serve as a thick soup, a side dish, or over rice as a main dish. It will thicken in the fridge but the flavors only get better.

Bengal Red Lentils with Spices
(serves 4-6)

1 ½ cups red lentils, rinsed and picked over
1 hot green chile, such as a small Thai chile or serrano, stemmed
½ teaspoons ground turmeric
4 ½ cups water
1 teaspoon kosher salt

1 small onion, minced
¾ cup diced peeled tomatoes (canned is fine)
1 Tablespoon grated fresh ginger
2 Tablespoons vegetable oil

Spiced Oil
1 ½ Tablespoons vegetable oil
½ teaspoon whole cumin seeds
½ teaspoon whole fennel seeds
½ teaspoon whole black mustard seeds
½ teaspoon black onion (kalonji or kalaunji) seeds
½ teaspoon fenugreek seeds (or same amount ground)
2 bay leaves
1 Chinese dried hot red chile pepper, stemmed

To cook lentils, place all dal ingredients in a large pot. Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally to prevent clumping and sticking to the bottom of the pot. Once it reaches a boil, turn down to medium-low and partially cover. Cook for 25 minutes.

While lentils are cooking, heat up the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add onions and cook, stirring often. When the onions start to brown, turn down heat to medium-low. Continue cooking until onions are toasty brown. Add tomatoes and ginger. Cook for a few minutes. Remove from heat. When the dal timer goes off, add this to the dal and mix in. Set the timer for another 10 minutes.

Heat oil in a small skillet. Add all the remaining ingredients and fry the spices until they are fragrant and the chile and bay leaves start to brown. Remove chile and bay leaves. Add seeds and oil to the dal when timer goes off. Check seasoning; add more salt if necessary. Serve hot.

Recipe can be doubled. Leftovers freeze well.

Recipe adapted from Classic Indian Vegetarian and Grain Cooking by Julie Sahni, William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1985.

Photo of Red Lentils: By Sudeshna Banerjee (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons