Dal is the Hindi term for dried peas, beans, and legumes and—somewhat confusingly—also refers to the dishes made from them. Dal in some form is consumed daily in most Indian households. Not only is it a complete protein when paired with rice or bread, but unlike many dietary cornerstones, dal can be utterly packed with flavor.
But there’s more: Dal comes together easily and quickly and it’s nourishing, satisfying, and cheap. And one of the real joys of dal is that it can take a near-endless variety of forms, from celebratory dal makhani, rich with butter and cream, to workday dishes consisting of only lentils, onion, and spices.
I set my sights on palak dal from northern India, a simple dal finished with spinach (palak means “spinach” in Hindi) that would be a great weeknight main. Here’s the usual routine: Start by simmering dal in water, sometimes with turmeric (some say for its vibrant color, while others claim it has health benefits) and/or asafetida, the dried resin scraped from the root of the Ferula assa-foetida plant, which is said to be a digestive aid. When the mixture is soft and creamy, stir in a few handfuls of fresh spinach.
Next comes the real genius: tadka, a seasoning technique central to Indian cuisine that takes mere minutes. Just bloom whole spices (and sometimes aromatics) in fat, and then use the highly fragrant, visually stunning mixture as a glistening garnish.
Indian cooks often use a pressure cooker to expedite dal’s longer cooking time, but for mine I decided to go with red lentils, as they have their hulls removed and break down in just 20 minutes on the stovetop. I simmered the lentils and turmeric in a 1:3 ratio of lentils to water and opted to leave out the asafetida, which can be hard to track down (I approximated its allium-like flavor with garlic and onion in the tadka). A few turns of a whisk broke down the lentils even more and gave them a porridge-like consistency thick enough to spoon over rice. Finally, I wilted baby spinach in the dal and brightened it with fresh lemon juice.
Tadka time. Vegetable oil and ghee are both often used here, and I decided to try the former first. I sizzled ingredients in stages in 1 tablespoon of oil: Whole cumin and brown mustard seeds went in first (mustard seeds are not typically added to the tadka for this dish, but I love their taste and texture), followed by chopped onion, sliced garlic, grated ginger, dried arbol chiles, and a fresh serrano chile to give the dish a bit of heat. When the onions were golden brown, I spooned the tadka onto the stewy lentils. The sweetness, spice, and moderate heat of the tadka gave the dish big personality, not to mention that it looked gorgeous atop the ocher lentils. What’s more, the cumin and mustard seeds provided bits of crunch.
My only complaints were that the dal tasted a little lean and the ginger was too prominent. To give the dish more richness, I switched the fat in the tadka from oil to ghee and bumped it up to 3 tablespoons. The ghee added welcome nutty sweetness and depth. Since not all cooks keep ghee on hand, I also came up with a sort of faux ghee made by quickly browning butter and discarding the browned milk solids (see “No Ghee? Browned Butter Works, Too”).
I also moved the ginger from the tadka to the saucepan with the lentils—more cooking would soften its flavor. Finally, many cooks include fresh curry leaves in tadka. I loved their distinctively smoky, citrusy taste in contrast with the creamy, earthy lentils. Fragrant, complex, and comforting, this dish is now a regular on my table.