Wednesday, April 16, 2008

5 Dals, or What Neen's Dad did While She Was at Work Last Week

[From our favorite guest blogger: Neen's Dad] When Neen and D visited us in Austin, Texas, last month, I whisked them off to one of the several Indian grocery stores I had discovered in North Austin, the most rapidly growing section of town, close to the major high tech companies. Immigrants from India make up 3% of town’s immigrant population, active in services as well as in high tech, and sufficiently affluent to support not only hometown-style groceries but also regular screenings of the most recent Bollywood spectaculars, at Cinemark’s Tinseltown South.

Gandhi Enterprises is next to the allied “Curry in Hurry,” and it features everything Indian, both culinary and cultural. Ranks of DVDs and VHS cassettes occupy an impressive space near the cashier. The store is not large, but the variety of Indian food products is dazzling. Imagine a whole aisle of chutneys and relishes, and another whole aisle of prepackaged Indian meals for the housewife without the time to cook all day long. But what most attracted my amateur eye were the stacked packages of all kinds of dal, whole or split, in many colors – black, yellow, orange, green and more.

Dal are varieties of dried beans and peas. As Madhur Jaffrey explains in her “Invitation to Indian Cooking” (1973, recently reprinted in hardback by HarperCollins),

“In some form or other they are eaten daily in almost every Indian home, frequently providing the poor with their only source of protein. While people in England and America speak of making their living as earning their ‘bread and butter,’ Indians who earn a bare wage complain that they make just enough for their ‘dal roti’ (‘roti’ is bread).”

You are unlikely to load up on dal at your local Indian restaurant, since you’ll be picking and choosing among the principal dishes, but there might be a dal or two on the menu. But consider them for your own kitchen: the peas or beans become an tasty medium for Indian spicing and can play neatly against the meat, breads, and chutneys. And Neen tells me that they make fine carry-along lunches the next day.

Jaffrey lists nine common types of dal (mung/moong dal, urad dal, chana dal, arhar or toovar dal, rajma (red kidney bean), mansoor dal, kala chana, chhola or kabli chana (chickpeas/garbanzos), and lobhia (whole black-eyed peas). She kindly notes to her 1973 audience that she is including “recipes for the dals available in your supermarkets (lentils, frozen black-eyed peas, canned chickpeas) and for dishes made with ground chickpea flour. . . and ground urad dal.”

We split our Austin purchases of dal, so when Neen’s mom and I arrived for a week’s visit, I had a good idea of the possible opportunities and challenges awaiting an amateur cook with time to spare.

Some lessons learned over the course of the great dal cook-in:

- - It is indeed prudent to pick through the dry dal, spreading it a quarter of a cup or less at a time on a clean plate to assure yourself that there are no stones or sticks in the mixture. The dals from our brand-name suppliers were admirably clean, but at one point I did detect and remove a jagged little stone that could have cost someone a chipped tooth.

-- Since dals are dried, one must rehydrate them. There are different approaches to this, and the split dals will respond much more quickly than the whole ones. The recipe for mung beans called for them to simmer for 5 hours; for the “dry cook” dals in her book on vegetables and grains, Julie Sahni simply soaks split dal under two inches of water for two hours. Take the time delay into consideration. And make sure that you are preparing the full measure of dal specified in the recipe. It can be awkward to try to rectify a recipe by adding uncooked, unsoaked dal late in the process.

- - Once you are comfortable with the basic concepts (such as the inevitable flavor base of ginger, garlic and hot pepper to taste), you can treat the dal as a canvas for self-expression. The last dal below was largely my own invention, but nothing says that the equivalent might not have been produced somehow, somewhere on the subcontinent.

Kali Dal – Black Beans Cooked in a Punjabi Style

“The black beans used here are not the Central American black beans [i.e., black turtle beans] but a slightly more viscous, ancient Indian variety known in much of north India as whole urad dal with skin (and in the state of Punjab, where this recipe is from as sabut ma).” -- Madhur Jaffrey, “Climbing the Mango Trees, A Memoir of a Childhood in India” (2005, NY: Alfred A. Knopf)

2 cups whole urad dal with skin
5 good-sized garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
One 4-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and chopped
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper for a mild recipe; may
be increased to taste
¼ cup peanut or olive oil
¾ cup puréed tomatoes (also called strained tomatoes or passata)
1 ½ teaspoons salt
6 tablespoons heavy cream
2 tablespoons unsalted butter (optional)

  1. Pick over the beans and wash them in several changes of water. Drain the beans and soak them in 5 cups of water overnight. (Or, alternatively, put the washed beans and the same amount of water in a pan and bring it to a boil. Bo il for 2 minutes. Cover it and turn off the heat. Set aside for 1 hour.)
  2. Drain the beans again. Put them in a pan, add 5 cups fresh water, and bring to a boil. Turn the heat to low so that the beans simmer very gently, cover partially, and cook 1 ½ to 2 hours or until the beans are tender. Stir every now and then.Meanwhile, put the garlic, ginger, cayenne and ¼ cup water in a blender. Blend until you have a smooth purée. Set a small (6-inch) preferably non-stick frying pan with the oil in it over medium heat. When it is hot, add the paste from the blender. Stir and fry for 3 to 4 minutes. When the beans are tender, pour this mixture into the pan with the beans. Add the tomato purée, salt, and cream. Stir the beans and bring to a gentle simmer. Cover partially and simmer gently, stirring now and then, for 15 minutes. Stir in the butter, if desired, and serve.

Moong Dal

(“This is North India’s most popular dal, and it is eaten with equal relish by toothless toddlers, husky farmers, and effete urban snobs. The simple recipe given below can be used for the white urad dal, the salmon-colored masoor dal, and the large arhar or toovar dal as well.” - Jaffrey, “Invitation to Indian Cooking”)

1 ½ cups moong dal (hulled and split)
2 garlic cloves, peeled

2 slices peeled fresh ginger, 1 inch square and 1/8 inch thick

1 teaspoon chopped Chinese parsley (coriander greens or cilantro)

½ teaspoon ground turmeric

¼-1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional)

1 ½ teaspoons salt

1 ½ teaspoons lemon juice

3 tablespoons vegetable oil or usli ghee (clarified butter – see comment, below)

a pinch ground asafetida or tiny lump asafetida (a resin used fo
r spicing)

1 teaspoon whole cumin seeds

Lemon or lime wedges
  1. Clean and wash dal thoroughly. Put dal in heavy-bottomed 3 to 4 quart pot, add 5 cups of water, and bring to a boil. Remove the froth and scum that collects at the top. Now add the garlic, ginger, parsley, turmeric and cayenne pepper. Cover, leaving the lid very slightly ajar, lower heat, and simmer gently for about 1 ½ hours. Stir occasionally. [Note: Julie Sahni’s version calls for 5 hours of cooking – which was about twice as long as necessary, in our experience.] When dal is cooked , add the salt and lemon juice (it should be thicker than pea soup, but thinner than cooked cereal).
  2. In a 4 to 6 inch skillet or small pot, heat the vegetable oil or ghee over a medium-high flame. When it is hot, add the asafetida and cumin seeds. As soon as the a safetida sizzles and expands and the cumin seeds turn dark (this will take only a few seconds), pour the oil and spices over the dal and serve. (Some people put the dal in a serving dish and then pour the oil and spices over it.)

Serving variation: You may chop two or three onions in thin rounds and sautée them until golden, then add asafetida and cumin seeds for the final moments. Serve this mixture on top of the moong dal or beside it.

Hot Chana Dal with Potatoes

(from Jaffrey’s “Invitation to Indian Cooking”)

½ cup chana dal (round, yellow grain, split; from the chickpea family), cleaned and washed [Note: we all agreed that this quantity could be doubled or tripled for this recipe]
1 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons vegetable oil [Note: you can purchase mustard oil at your local Indian store, but do so quickly; Mr Sani at Dani Imports in Rockville, Maryland, tells us that because of shortages, the Indian government has forbidden the export of this uniquely Indian cooking substance]
¼ teaspoon black mustard seeds
¼ teaspoon whole cumin seeds

10 fenugreek seeds
2 fresh green chilies (as an alternative, use 1/8 – ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper)
1 medium-sized onion, peeled and chopped
a piece of fresh ginger, about ¾ inch square, peeled and grated
4 new potatoes, boiled and diced into ½-inch cubes
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons lemon juice or 3 tablespoons tamarind paste [Note: the tamarind gives it a special tang; tamarind paste in jars or dried tamarind ready for rehydration can be found at your Indian grocery]

  1. Put the dal to boil with 3 cups of water and ½ teaspoon of the salt. Cover, lower heat, and simmer gently for 1 hour. Drain and set aside.
  2. In a 10-inch skillet, heat the oil over a medium-high flame. When it is hot, put in the mustard, cumin and fenugreek seeds. In a few seconds, as soon as the cumin and fenugreek seeds darken and the mustard seeds begin to pop, add the green chilies. Turn them over once (this will take another second), then put in the chopped onion and grated ginger. Stir and fry the onions for 4 to 5 minutes. Now put in all the remaining ingredients – that is, the boiled dal and the diced potatoes, ½ teaspoon salt , the pepper, cayenne if you are using it, and lemon juice or tamarind paste. Mix well and cook over medium flame for 5 minutes, stirring frequently but gently.

“Dry Cooked” Sookhi Dal

(from Julie Sahni’s Indian Cooking with Vegetables and Grains)

1 cup split yellow mung beans (moong dal)
5 Tbs usli ghee (clarified butter, a staple of Indian cooking, available in Indian groceries either as an import from the subcontinent or as “Desi ghee,” produced in North America) [Note: I love cooking with butter, but I shivered with dread when I took the jar out of the fridge and saw the waxy pale yellow substance; delicious as it is, ghee has got to be 100 percent cholesterol]
1 tsp cumin seeds
3/4 cup finely minced onion
1 Tbs finely chopped fresh ginger
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
1/4 tsp tumeric
3/4 tsp mango powder or 1 1/2 Tbs lemon juice
1 tsp coarse salt
1 cup water
2 Tbs chopped fresh coriander

  1. Pick clean the beans and wash thoroughly in several changes of water. Put beans inbowl and add enough water to cover by at least 2 inches. Let soak for 2 hours. Drain and set aside.
  2. Measure out the spices and place them right next to the stove in separate piles. Heat 2 Tbs of usli ghee in a medium-size skillet or saucepan over medium-high heat. When it is hot add the minced onion. Fry, stirring constantly, until light golden (~10min). Add ginger, cayenne, and tumeric; continue frying for an additional 2 min. Add soaked beans. Sprinkle on the mango powder and salt, and mix wel. Pour on 1 cup water and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and cook the beans partially covered for 20-25 min or until the beans are almost cooked and most of the liquid is absorbed. Cover the pan during the last 5-10 min of cooking.
  3. Stir in the remaining usli ghee and continue cooking the beans, covered, in the butter vapor, for 10min or untilt hey are fully cooked and soft. Uncover, fold in the cilantro, and serve warm.

“Firangi” Masoor Dal

(“Firangi” [foreigner] dal because I made this one up, following Sahni’s general instructions for dry-cooked dal. I love the electric salmon color of this uncooked dal; it fades a little bit during the cooking.)

two cups masoor dal
a tablespoon of cumin seeds, dry-toasted in a frying pan
garlic (as much as you like!)
ginger (ibid)
onion (ibid)
vegetable oil (mustard oil is a possibility)
three small hot green peppers (serrano type), seeded and cut lengthways into quarters
1 small can peeled tomatoes
three spring onions, choped in one-inch lengths
a generous amount of black pepper

Soak two cups masoor dal under two inches of water for two hours blended the garlic, ginger and onion in a paste and fried it up in mustard oil. Once that that was ready, I added the cumin seed and the hot green peppers, sautéed them until the peppers had gone limp, then stirred in the tomatoes (without the brine) and cooked for perhaps ten minutes. I seasoned further with black pepper after cooking was done.

Neen commented, perhaps doubtfully, that it looked Italian – but she didn’t complain about the flavor!


Cookie baker Lynn said...

Excellent dal lesson. Thanks! I've never delved much into Indian cooking, but your recipes make me want to try some.

Lisa said...

Thoroughly enjoyed this post. As banal as London Ontario is, there are a few Indian grocery stores here, including my favorite, which sounds very much like the one you describe here. I feel like a kid in a candy shop every time I visit.

Kevin said...

Great dal post! I have not used dal all that much. I used urad dal once though I had a hard time finding it. I ended up finding a small shop which had a lot of bags of different coloured dals but there were no labels on any of them.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.