"What's for dinner?" "Dal, darl!" - goes the happy refrain in our house. From the classic red lentils to more obscure pigeon peas and black-eyed beans, spiked with tamarind or infused with cardamom, we love dal in every incarnation. The pulses used for dal can be divided into roughly 3 groups - split and husked, merely split, or whole. The flavour and texture of the different dals are totally different, and their processing also affects their nutritional value - the less husking or splitting, the more fibre.
You may not know that red lentils are actually the brown ones with the skins removed, or that urad dal, a husked white lentil used in South Indian seasonings, actually has a black skin when whole. It's so hard to choose a favourite, but if I had to, it would be chana dal or Bengal gram. These look like yellow split peas but are totally different - they are actually husked and split kala chana or Indian "black" chickpeas. They hold their shape when cooked and have a fabulous nutty flavour.
I want to share with you this easy and delicious chana dal recipe. It includes a very authentic Indian touch, which is the addition of dried fenugreek leaves or kasuri methi. These are not widely used in the non-Indian community here in Australia, but they are just delicious. Fenugreek has a very strong, distinctive, "curry" flavour and is often over-used in commercial curry powders. Its brown, diamond-shaped seeds are used either whole or ground, from Bangladesh to Sri Lanka, while its green leaves are used fresh like spinach or dried as a seasoning.
Chana dal with capsicum
Adapted from Mona Verma, The Ultimate Dal Cookbook, Penguin Books, New Delhi, 2004.
1 cup chana dal
1/4 tsp + 1 pinch ground turmeric
1 tsp + 1 pinch salt
2 Tb + 2 Tb oil
2 medium capsicums, chopped into 3 cm x 3 cm pieces
2 medium tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped or 1/2 425g tin chopped tomatoes or 3/4 cup passata
2 tsp finely chopped ginger
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 large green chilli, deseeded and finely chopped (or to taste)
1/2 tsp garam masala
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1 Tb tamarind paste (or to taste) - click the link for how to make it
1/2 tsp sugar
1 tsp dry fenugreek leaves (or to taste)
2 Tb finely chopped coriander (optional)
Wash the dal in several changes of water and soak in water for a minimum of 2 hours. Drain and rinse well. Place in a pan with 1/4 tsp turmeric, 1 tsp salt, and 2 cups water. Bring to the boil and simmer until dal is tender, about 20-30 minutes. Do not drain. Remove from heat and set aside.
Heat 2 Tb oil in a pan and add capsicum and a pinch each of salt and turmeric. Fry for a few minutes then add tomato (if using passata, do not add just yet). Continue to cook for 3-4 minutes then remove from pan.
Heat another 2 Tb oil in the pan and add garlic, ginger, and green chilli. Cook whilst stirring for 1-2 minutes.
Add chana dal, garam masala, and cumin, and cook for a few minutes. Add tamarind, sugar, fenugreek leaves, and capsicum and tomatoes (if using passata, you may add it now). Cook for about 7-8 minutes. Taste and check seasoning. Garnish with coriander leaves, if using.
One of my all-time favourites. The fenugreek leaves give a certain je ne sais quoi to the finished dish, and the tamarind and sugar make it sweet and tangy, rounding out the warm green chilli undertones. Incidentally, husked lentils such as these freeze much better than those with skins, as the skins do toughen slightly after freezing and defrosting. Happy cooking!