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Everyday Lentil Dal

By Steve Dunn Published

This Indian staple is quick, easy, nourishing, inexpensive, and­—most important—incredibly flavorful.

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.

We made three batches of dal and then added fresh baby spinach to one, frozen spinach to another, and whole-leaf spinach to the last to determine which one works best in this simple dish.

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.

Curious About Curry Leaves?

Glossy green curry leaves have no relation to curry powder, though they’re often added to curries. Instead, they’re the leaves of the curry tree (Murraya koenigii), a member of the citrus family native to Southeast Asia. The fresh leaves, which are entirely edible, have a smoky, citrusy, savory aroma and flavor that has no substitute. Look for curry leaves in the herb section at Indian or Asian markets or some supermarkets that stock a wide selection of international ingredients. Fresh leaves can be frozen in a zipper‑lock bag for up to one month.

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.

No Ghee? Browned Butter Works, Too

  • Ghee is traditionally made by simmering fermented cream (or fermented cream that has been turned into butter) until all its moisture has evaporated and its milk solids have browned, creating a variety of Maillard reactions and changing the composition of the fat. The solids are then strained out, leaving behind pure butterfat with a distinctive, nutty flavor. We were happy to find that quickly browning butter and discarding the browned milk solids left in the pan (which we don’t typically do for browned butter) produced a sort of faux ghee with similar nuttiness. Here’s how to make it: Melt 6 tablespoons butter in 10-inch skillet over medium-high heat. Continue to cook, swirling skillet and stirring constantly with rubber spatula, until butter is dark golden brown and has nutty aroma, 1 to 3 minutes longer. Slowly pour butter into small heatproof bowl, leaving as much of browned milk solids behind as possible. Using paper towel, wipe solids from skillet and discard.

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”).

Transform Your Cooking with Tadka

Tadka (variously known as chhonk, bagar, phodni, vagarne, oggarane, and more, depending on the region) is a core technique in Indian cooking that involves blooming whole spices (and sometimes other ingredients) in fat to extract their aromas and fat-soluble flavors. The highly perfumed fat and its contents are either spooned onto a finished dish (which often incites a flourish of crackling and sizzling) or incorporated during cooking. The particular ingredients in tadka vary greatly depending on the food that is being seasoned as well as the cook’s community, caste, and region, but classic combinations do exist. For instance, in Kerala, a mix of coconut, cinnamon stick, star anise, and clove is popular; Punjabis combine cardamom pods, cinnamon stick, clove, ginger, garlic, and onion; and Bengali cooks enjoy black mustard seed, cumin seed, nigella seed, and fenugreek seed. Regardless of the particular ingredients, the contributions of a tadka are many. –Kaumudi Marathé

 

RICHNESS 

Oil or ghee makes lean dishes more satisfying.

 

FLAVOR

Whole (and sometimes ground) spices, fresh and dried chiles, curry leaves, ginger, garlic, and onions offer vivid flavor, heat, and depth.

 

AROMA

As whole spices bloom in hot fat, they may darken in color, unfurl, pop, or puff. They will also release pungent aromas that will perfume your kitchen—and your food.

 

COLOR AND TEXTURE

Whole spices contribute tremendous visual and textural character to even the simplest of dishes.

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.

Recipe Palak Dal (Spinach Dal with Cumin and Mustard Seeds)

This Indian staple is quick, easy, nourishing, inexpensive, and—most important—incredibly flavorful.