If there is one dish that's common through the extreme diversity of Indian cuisine, it's daal (lentils). Rich and poor, festival fare or frugal meal, it's the great leveller of Indian food.
In India, the word daal refers to the lentil as well as the finished dish. There are about five or six commonly used daals and countless dishes that we create out of them.
In fact, so popular is daal in Indian cuisine that the term daal-chaval (lentils and rice) is commonly used as a synonym for food.
For most of vegetarian India, it is a vital source of protein. And a dish that finds its way to the table every day, sometimes for all three meals. We also love to cook our meats with lentils. And some delicious, robust dishes emerge from this wonderful pairing.
Its mild, understated nature makes daal a blank canvas of sorts, for the various regions of India to embellish in their own unique way. In fact, there are so many ways to make daal; so many combinations and cultural variations that it could take you a good part of the year to eat your way through them all, without a hint of routine setting in.
A simple starting point to the world of daals is the daal tadka.
To give a dish a tadka is simply to temper it with ghee (clarified butter) and spices. When the spices enter the hot ghee, they infuse their rich flavors into it. This heady, perfumed oil is then poured over the daal where it spits and sizzles quite dramatically as it permeates the calm yellow concoction. The heady aroma and the wild hiss and sputter of the tadka is kitchen theater at its best. And the main act, you will soon discover is worthy of many encores.
- For the Daal:
- 1 cup tuvar daal (yellow lentils/pigeon peas)
- 1 1/2 teaspoons ghee (clarified butter)
- pinch of asafoetida
- 1 teaspoon turmeric powder
- 2 1/2 cups water
- For the Tadka:
- 1 1/2 tablespoons ghee
- 3 Mundu chillies (these are small, round chillies from South India, alternatively any dry red chilli will do)
- 1 teaspoon whole black mustard seeds
- 1 teaspoon whole cumin seed, plus 1 1/2 teaspoons toasted and ground cumin seed
- 6 curry leaves
- 1/2 teaspoon asafoetida
- 1/4 teaspoon red chilli powder
For the Daal: Wash and drain tuvar daal in a large fine mesh strainer. Heat ghee in pressure cooker over high heat until shimmering. Add asafoetida, turmeric, and washed daal. Cook, stirring frequently till the ghee coats the daal, about 20 seconds.
Add water and salt to taste. Close pressure cooker, increase heat to high, and heat until pressure cooker is pressurized to high pressure. Reduce heat to low and cook ten minutes. Remove from heat and allow pressure to dissipate.
Open pressure cooker and break up daal with a whisk. Set aside while you make the tadka.
For the Tadka: Heat ghee in a heavy-bottomed non-stick skillet over high heat until lightly smoking. Reduce heat to medium.
Add mundu chillies, mustard seeds, and whole cumin seed (stand away from skillet as the seeds pop). Wait until seeds sizzle, about 10 seconds, then add curry leaves and stir. Cook until the curry leaves sizzle, about 10 seconds longer, then add asafoetida, red chilli and roasted cumin powder. Stir vigorously and immediately transfer all contents to the daal and lightly stir. Do not mix thoroughly. Some of the ghee should float on top. Serve immediately with white rice, Indian bread (roti) or as an accompaniment to any Indian meal.
Pressure cooker, heavy-bottomed non-stick sauté pan.