Since marrying a South Indian man, I have made a Herculean effort to love dal, the soupy lentil concoction that is the underpinning of most vegetarian Indian meals. Typically, my dal tastes like ground-up books from a flooded Delhi library.
Further challenging my quest to make a good pot of dal is understanding the word itself: in Hindhi, ‘dal’ refers to a panoply of lentils, legumes, beans, as well as to any dish made with them. In ‘Classic Vegetarian Indian and Grain Cooking’ Julie Sahni helpfully explains that hulled dals, such as the red masoor or the yellow toovar, are the most suitable for simmering into creamy soups as they fall apart entirely during the cooking process.
But my dals have always suffered from major taste and texture problems: more musty than aromatic, and more vomitous than creamy.
Finally though, I have arrived at a dal I can not only tolerate, but enjoy. It might be more Winndian than Indian, but here is my method:
1) Brown vegetables
I use roughly four cups assorted vegetables, cut into smallish pieces. It’s good to mix up tastes and textures: use something brassy like cauliflower or broccoli, something sweet like corn or carrots, and something mild and like zucchini or green potato. Working in batches, brown them in a single layers in oil in a nice big non-nonstick pot. Remove from the pot as you go and don’t overcook – they’ll finish later on in the soup.
Most dal recipes don’t have so many vegetables-but I find that they add some love to the texture, and the browning contributes mightily to the flavour.
2) Brown your aromatics
On medium-high heat: start with a nice big diced onion, and once it’s starting to color, add in 1-2 tbsp each of garlic and ginger. Put in green chile to your taste as well. Don’t be shy. After a minute or two toss in 2-3 green cardamom pods, 2 whole cloves, and a whopping 1 tbsp brown mustard seeds. Stand back as the mustard seeds start to pop all over the place, then:
3) Let the magic happen
By adding in one cup of red lentils (masoor), all the browned vegetables, 1/2 tsp turmeric, a palmful of shredded non-sweetned coconut, and enough water or vegetable stock to cover everything by about an inch. Don’t get generous with the turmeric, it really creates a musty dead library book flavour if you add too much. If you want a creamier texture, substitute coconut milk for some of the water. Let everything mingle together for abut 25 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste, and top up with more liquid if the texture is too thick for your liking.
4) Give it some bling
Traditionally, dals are garnished with tarka, aka tadka, which is a spice-perfumed ghee. After consulting a number of Indian cookbooks, I have determined that you can pretty much just make this up as you go along. Heat up the ghee, then add some whole Indian spices (try cumin and mustard seed for a start), let them pop and brown, then add a nice powdered spice mix (try whatever curry powder or garam masala you have around). If you don’t have ghee, use regular butter, but you won’t be able to get it as hot without burning, so your spices won’t diffuse as well into the butter.
If you’re too tired for all that, garnish with any or all of: a pat of butter, kefir, yogurt, coriander, or toasted almonds. I have also used tart green apple, minced small, which is weird but tasty.