I’ve always thought this was one of the worst-looking food dishes I’ve ever seen. Brownish-red slop with lumps in it. Totally awful. Then I tasted it.
That was, oh, 5 years ago, give or take. I’ve realized since then that your perception of food’s appearance is highly dependent on your experience with and enjoyment of the flavour. Now I see the same slop and think about how marvelous the deeper red colours are, how rich it looks with cream floating on the top. I understand now how black gram’s luxuriously creamy texture is one of the finest selling points of this dish.
Like other lentil dishes, the cooking method features a technique called tadka, also known as tempering. Tadka is the technique of frying whole spices in oil (which releases the spice’s essential oils) and then pouring the flavoured oil over the dish. I do this backwards, usually, frying the spices in oil, then pouring the dal into the oil. It’s kind of dumb that I do this, because it inevitably causes some liquids to shoot at me from the hot oil. But I always seem to get stuck in a position where I am forced to do this by not using my cooking pots in the correct order. Next thing I know, I’m pouring dal and cooking water into a very hot frying pan. Sigh. I will attempt to describe a safer, more correct method below.
Also, if you’re using dry lentils, remember to soak them overnight. They are very different in size and therefore have much different cooking times if you are boiling them from their dried state. If they’ve been soaked, they will both cook much faster. Read the first step below for more information.
- 3/4 cup whole urad dal (black gram)
- 1/4 rajma (red kidney beans)
- 5-6 cloves garlic
- 0.5″ knob of ginger
- 1/4 cup ghee
- 1 tsp whole cumin seeds
- pinch of asafoetida
- 1/3 cup crushed tomato
- 2 tsp Kashmiri chili powder
- 1/2 tsp garam masala
- 1/4 cup cream
- 1 1/2 tsp salt
Serve with: Indian breads, rice, tandoori-something
What you will need: medium to large-sized pot for boiling water and cooking lentils, small frying pan for tadka, measuring cups and spoons, knife and chopping board, bowls for soaking lentils, plastic wrap, potato masher
- Rinse and soak lentils: The first step is measuring out the lentils and kidney beans into a large bowl, and filling the bowl with cold water – you will need to rinse the dust and loose particles out of the legumes. There’s often a fair amount of this and it may not be apparent, so swirl your hand through the beans. You’ll notice the water gets cloudy. You’ll want to drain this gross water and add new water. Repeat this rinsing process about 3-4 times until the water runs pretty clear. Cover the beans with water one last time, seal the bowl with plastic wrap and put into your fridge overnight.
- Or, you could just buy lentils and beans in a can. Assuming you know where you can buy black gram (urad dal) in a can. I’ve never looked for it, honestly. Indian stores seem to like to stock huge piles of dried legumes, so deal with it.
- Ready to cook? OK. Drain the soaked lentils one last time. Add 3 cups of water to your medium-large pot, and turn on the burner to high to get the water boiling.
- While your water is heating up, finely chop the garlic and ginger into one giant pile. Split that pile in half. Half of it goes right into the water as it heats up.
- Add the soaked lentils to the water as well. And get that water to a boil.
- Once the water starts to boil, let it cook for a few minutes, then turn the heat down to a simmer (where the surface is rippling and swirling, but not full-on bubbling). Let it simmer for 25 minutes or so.
- Do something for 25 minutes. I suggest writing an email to your parents. It’s Christmas. Wait, check the lentils after 10 minutes, is there enough water in the pot to cover them? No? Add a bit more if you have to. Keep it simmering. When the lentils cook, they will absorb water, in addition to some of the water escaping as steam. This means you have to watch the water levels and make sure they stay high enough to keep the lentils covered.
- Hey, go back and check the lentils. Like, spoon a few out, blow on them to cool ’em down and then eat them. Are they soft? Not crunchy? Make sure you test a kidney bean as they may require a few extra minutes of cooking. The black gram will actually split its skin when it approaches doneness, so you have a good signal there. It’s OK if the black gram gets soft. They supply the creaminess this way.
- Lentils are done. Hooray. Lower the heat to medium-low (3 on my dial). Grab that potato masher and smash the beans. Not necessarily all of them, but let’s say 60-80% of them. Most of this dal dish will be a smooth paste-like texture.
- In a small frying pan, heat up the 1/4 cup of ghee or oil over medium heat. This is the tadka. When the oil is hot, add the cumin seeds, and fry for 5-10 seconds. Add the asafoetida, and the remaining garlic and ginger. When the garlic begins to gently brown, immediately pour the entire contents of the frying pan over the simmering lentils.
- Also add to the lentils the tomato puree, chili powder, garam masala and salt. Stir the lentils to incorporate all that awesomeness you just added.
- Simmer the lentils for 20-25 minutes on low heat to spread the flavours throughout the dish, and to cook the tomato.
- When the lentils are a few minutes from being done, pour in the cream and stir. Check the seasoning. It may need a bit more salt. Adjust as needed.
- Lentils are done. To serve, you may want to transfer to a serving bowl and garnish it with a splash of cream or even a spoonful of ghee. It’s up to you. It’s certainly saturated with enough fat already.
Sorry, I ended that one on a bit of a guilt trip. But really, this dish is lentils in butter and cream. You wouldn’t have gotten this far if you cared that much about your ass fat. Sometimes, you indulge. It’s OK.
You can make this a vegan dish, I suppose, by substituting a vegetable oil for the ghee, and a thick non-dairy milk for the cream (or simply omit it altogether).