There as many versions of dal as there are Indian cooks. This is just one of mine, made with red split lentils and with no vegetable other than onions. The flavor is very South Indian, but the use of butter instead of oil (I actually use the spiced clarified butter niter kibbeh) and the inclusion of vadouvan at the end (to refresh the soup's flavor) take this out of strictly traditional territory.
Don't be intimidated by the long list of spices. If you don't have some, the dal will survive, and it readily tolerates substitutions (the curry leaves do add an important touch, though). What you can't cheat on is time. Dal should cook for at least an hour, which accomplishes three things: the near-total breakdown of the lentils, which thickens the liquid with starch; the diffusion and blending of spices; and the slow braise of onions, as important to the dish as the spices themselves.
Oh, and don't skimp on the fat either. Six tablespoons for a pound of lentils is hardly extravagant, but health-conscious eaters who choose to go without may face a chalky, insipid mush.
When made with care and a little love, dal is one of the most satisfying and comforting meals that can come out of any kitchen. Treat it well and it will more than return the favor. And should you need respite from a cold or inner peace from the previous day's alcoholic excesses, dal makes a fine cure-all.
- 6 tablespoons oil, butter, or niter kibbeh
- 2 large onions, chopped
- 3 inches ginger, peeled and minced
- 3 jalapeño chiles, minced
- Heavy pinch asafoetida
- 12 curry leaves
- 2 teaspoons mustard seed
- 1 tablespoon coriander, freshly ground
- 2 teaspoons cumin
- 2 teaspoons paprika
- 1 pound (2 cups) red lentils (masoor dal)
- 1 teaspoon vadouvan, garam masala, or curry powder
- Yogurt and minced cilantro, for garnish
In a large, heavy pot, heat fat on high, then add onions. Cook until soft and slightly browned, 10 to 15 minutes, then add ginger, chiles, and spices. Stir constantly to prevent spices from sticking and burning.
When mustard seeds start to pop, add lentils and 6 cups water. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook, covered, until lentils almost completely fall apart, about 1 hour. Stir occasionally to prevent sticking and add water as needed. When lentils are soft, add salt to taste.
Ten minutes before serving, stir in vadouvan. Serve warm with yogurt and cilantro, if desired.