If you love Indian food but often feel daunted by the idea of making it yourself, dal (sometimes spelled “daal” or “dahl”) is a great entry point. With simple ingredients and minimal effort, dal requires basic knife skills and a little patience. To boot, this recipe also happens to be vegan; but while it is free of animal products, it is no way lacking in flavor. When I first sampled a bite to make sure the lentils were cooked through, I ended up standing for several minutes over the stove, eating spoonful after spoonful and groaning over just how delicious this dish actually is.
What’s more, it’s arguably even better the day after you make it, after the ingredients have had more time to meld in the fridge. I love making a big pot of dal and nursing it over the course of the week; you can doctor it several ways to add some variety, and eat it for literally any meal. (I had it for breakfast the morning after I made it!) Add some fresh cilantro, a squeeze of lime, coconut cream, crispy fried onion slivers, or some raita or yogurt. Eat it with naan, roti, on toast, or with brown or basmati rice. This dish is complex and balanced enough to stand up to a little tweaking, but really is remarkably good straight out of the pan.
What Is Dal?
Usually including onions and/or tomatoes and a host of spices, dal is essentially savory lentil porridge.
The word “dal” comes from the similarly named Sanskrit root verb, meaning “to split,” and is commonly used to refer to lentils of all colors and sizes. (In this case, however, we are talking specifically about the dish.) Made from either lentils, peas, or beans which do not require soaking (also called “pulses”), dal comes in three primary forms: made from unhulled pulses, split pulses, or hulled and split. When a pulse is hulled, its outer shell is removed, thereby making it easier to digest; in turn, however, it looses some of its inherent nutritional value in the process, such as dietary fiber.
According to Wikipedia, India is the leading producer and consumer of pulses in the world, no doubt why lentils and other legumes contribute so much to Indian cuisine. Most Indian households eat lentils in some form at least once throughout the day (either sweet or savory), no matter where they fall on the financial or class spectrum. In this way, pulses are a great equalizer in Indian cuisine.
One popular way of finishing a bowl of dal is to pour “chaunk” over the top of the bowl. Chaunk is generally whole spices fried in a neutral tasting oil, such as fenugreek, red pepper seeds, or cumin or mustard seeds. However, chaunk varies regionally and comes in a wide variety of forms.
India’s Legume History
Tracing back well before the Christian era, a baked, sweetened lentil paste dessert known as “mande” or “mandaka” reaches back to the Buddhist era. Two legumes which show up in India’s historical texts are chickpeas and horse gram, both of which are still eaten in India to this day.
In texts dating back to 1130 AD, pulses are mentioned as the main ingredient in common dishes, with dals made from cereal grains also present. Pulses can be cooked with or without soaking, but can also be ground into a flour and used to make traditional Indian breads such as papadum, or moong dal paratha.
Lentils are also considered the first meal of someone in mourning, because they are round and sorrow (like a wheel) is thought to come around and touch everyone in their turn. Additionally, the lentils’ smooth shape is thought to symbolize the silence indicative of the mourning period in Indian culture.
It is said in lore that during King Avadh’s reign, a cook was hired exclusively to cook lentils. He took the job on the condition that the king eat the lentils while they were good and hot, never allowing them to grow cold. This worked for a while, until the king was unable to come as planned for dinner one day.
In frustration, the cook threw the whole dish away and walked out, saying “yeh mooh aur masoor ki daal” or “you are not worth this lentil!”
Health Benefits of Dal
Aside from being a low fat, low cholesterol dish due to being pulse-centric rather than meat-centric, dal also contains hearty doses of ground spices like cumin, coriander, and ginger. Thought to contain healing properties in India’s Ayurvedic medicine tradition, dal nourishes on a cellular level and promotes overall wellness in several ways.
Lentils are high in
- B vitamins
- phytochemicals, which prevent diseases like heart disease and type 2 diabetes
- and are 25% protein
They have been linked to heart health, blood sugar management, lower blood pressure, and general fitness, as they increase satiety and discourage overeating.
Fresh cilantro has been linked to reduced symptoms of Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s, reduced anxiety, and blood sugar management.
In this recipe, ground cumin, coriander, ginger, and turmeric are all used; each of these spices is thought to host a litany of health properties, essentially adding up to reduced inflammation, blood sugar management, improved heart health, weight loss facilitation, and improved brain health and digestion.
(If you are curious about learning more about yam nutrition facts for this dal, please refer to my previous blog post for Sweet Baked Yam With Tahini, Cilantro, and Pepitas.)
It’s hard to have a bad day eating such colorful food…perhaps this is why golden turmeric is linked with depression relief.
Onions sauté in a little oil followed by yams, ginger, garlic, and red pepper. In go the lentils, spices, salt, tomatoes, and some water…
Everything simmers for about 35 minutes. Stir in some coconut cream for some richness and just try not to immediately scoop yourself a bowl! And don’t worry–dal freezes beautifully!
Red Lentil and Yam Dal
- 3 Tbs neutral flavored oil, such as canola
- 1 medium onion, finely diced
- 2 cups sweet potato, finely diced
- 1 inch peeled ginger, finely minced
- 2 large cloves garlic, finely minced
- 1/2 tsp aleppo chili flakes
- 1 cup red lentils
- 2 tsp ground coriander
- 2 tsp ground cumin
- 2 tsp ground turmeric
- 1 tsp ground ginger
- 1/4 tsp black pepper, freshly ground
- 1 1/2 cups canned diced tomatoes
- salt, to taste
- 1/4 cup coconut cream
- cilantro, for garnish
- In a large, heavy-bottomed dutch oven, heat oil over medium heat. Add onion and sautuntil translucent, about 5 minutes. Add yam and sautee for another 5 minutes.
- Reduce heat to low and add ginger, garlic, and pepper flakes, and stir. Add lentils and ground spices to the pot, and stir until fully incorporated. Add tomatoes and 3 1/2 cups water, and raise heat to high until the mixture boils.
- Once boiling, reduce heat until mixture is at a rapid simmer and cook about 40 minutes, stirring occasionally, or until lentils are fully cooked and the liquid is absorbed. Season to taste with salt.
- Remove from heat once liquid is absorbed and lentils are cooked, add coconut cream and stir. Garnish with cilantro and serve immediately.