About 3 years ago, I purchased a large bag of dried chana dal from Loblaws, having no idea what chana dal was, or what to do with it. What I did know was “lentils are healthy and I should be eating some lentils”. So I took this bag home and tried out a recipe from an Indian cookbook I had.
It turned out mostly terrible. Not only have I learned that the cookbook in question routinely calls for 50% of the salt needed to make anything taste good, the preparation steps were vague about how to cook the lentils themselves. Over the next few years, I tried the dish a few more times with mixed results – the lentils were too hard, not seasoned well, too dry, etc. Of course, it didn’t help that I had never actually eaten dal before. All I had was a picture of something that looked pretty good, and some brief descriptions of the finished product. I have this problem often.
So I went and had myself some dal, and I discovered clues that would help unlock the puzzle of cooked lentils. A few things, for example: ground lentils have thickening properties, asafoetida cannot be underestimated as an ingredient, and lentils taste gross without salt. I went back to this recipe, re-wrote the ingredients and the preparations – finally, I have a process that delivers good dal every time.
Wait, you may be asking yourself, WTF is asafoetida? WTF is chana dal? These are good questions. I will post about asafoetida in the future. It is an interesting ingredient, to say the least. Chana dal are split black chickpeas, with the seedcoat removed. They look very similar to yellow split peas and some recipes will suggest the two are interchangeable. I disagree. Split peas turn to mush and break apart under heat much faster than chana dal does. I don’t advise using them in this recipe. I also don’t advise using chickpeas since black chickpeas (kala chana) are much different/smaller than the chickpeas we are familiar with. Look for chana dal – it is not too hard to find assuming you live in Toronto, which is a completely asinine thing to assume.
- 1 cup dry chana dal
- 1/2 tsp turmeric powder
- 2 tbsp oil
- 1 onion
- 1 tsp whole cumin seeds
- 1/4 tsp asafoetida powder
- 1/2 tsp cayenna powder (optional)
- cilantro garnish (optional)
- salt to taste
Serve with: roti, rice, vegetables
What you will need: medium-sized pot (enough to hold 8 cups of water or so), medium-large frying pan, cutting board and knife, measuring cups and spoons, wooden spoon, potato masher
- You will need to rinse the dal. Measure and put them in the cooking pot and fill the pot halfway with water. Swirl your hand through the dal. You will probably notice bubbles in the water. Change the water and repeat this process a few times, until the bubbling effect fades. This will avoid foaming in the cooking process. While you’ve got your hands in the dal, inspect the peas briefly. Sometimes like-coloured stones get mixed into the bags (I assume they sneak past the sorting machines by virtue of being the same size and weight) and you may not enjoy eating stones.
- Drain out the last change of water, measure 3 cups of fresh water and add this water to the pot. Add the 1/2 tsp of turmeric and a tsp of salt and stir. Turn the heat up high to set the water boiling.
- Once the water is bubbling, lower the heat to medium-low (4 on my dial) and let the lentils simmer for 30 minutes. This is a great time to chop that onion into, let’s say, half-inch squares. Also, if any foam rises to the surface of the lentils in the first 10 minutes of cooking, try to skim this off if you can.
- Check the lentils a few times during cooking to adjust the temperature of the water if needed. You don’t want rapid boiling here since you want there to be water leftover at the end. Still, you also want the water to hot enough to be cooking the lentils quickly.
- After 25-30 minutes, check the lentils. By check, I mean taste. Can you bite through them easily? Are they soft but not crumbling? Then they are done. If they are too firm, or dry-tasting when you bite them, continue cooking them. During this period, put the frying pan on a burner and turn the heat up to medium. Add the oil to the pan.
- If your lentils are done, turn off the burner and remove them from the heat. Use a potato masher to mash the lentils. If they are soft, they should break apart easily. You don’t want a puree (or maybe you do, I don’t know) so try to mash them about 50% of the way to a puree. You want a lot of the lentils to be broken, but still have plenty of solid ones left for texture. Alternatively, you could take about 2/3 of the cooked lentils and run them very briefly through a food processor to achieve this effect. I like the masher because I can precisely control how mashed they get.
- In the now-hot frying pan, add the tsp of cumin seeds to the oil. Add the asafoetida to the oil, too. Add the cayenne if you’re using it. Let these fry for about 10 seconds or so, then add the onion. Continue frying the onion until the squares have some browned edges, and have softened. Maybe 3-5 minutes or so. Enjoy the aroma of frying cumin and onion. Marvel at the unique qualities of asafoetida. Seriously, this is magic happening.
- Now your frying pan is full of fried onions and seasoned oil. Pour the cooked, mashed lentils and all the remaining water from the pot into the frying pan. Stir everything together to incorporate the oil into the lentils. Be careful to not splash hot water or oil onto yourself, scarring your body and horrifying your loved ones. Check the salt, and add more if needed.
- Another judgement call: the mashed lentils will have thickened the liquid in the pan. You may have to add more water to the pan to get the consistency desired, which is thick, but decidedly liquid. Stew-like, even. Alternatively, you may have too much water, in which case, simmer the lentils briefly and the water will cook off in a few minutes.
- Once you get the right consistency, your lentils may be served. Garnish with shredded cilantro leaves if you’d like, or not.
Your leftover dal will almost assuredly thicken in the fridge. Expect to add a fair amount of water if you’re reheating leftovers.
Lentils are healthy and you should be eating some lentils.