Dhal is the Sanskrit verb “to split.” In South Asian cookery it generally refers to dried split pulses such as split peas, beans, as well as split or whole lentils.
Dhal also refers to a South Asian thick stew prepared from pulses that are usually eaten with rice and flat breads that accompany a meal.
There are many varieties of pulses used in South Asian cookery including:
- toor dhal, split yellow pigeon peas
- chana dhal, split chickpeas
- yellow dhal, split yellow peas
- mung dhal, split mung beans
- urad dhal, split black lentils
- masoor dhal, split or whole reddish brown lentils
Confused? Not to worry. A trip to a local Indian shop is your best bet for finding a wide variety of pulses to choose from. Buy a few varieties to familiarize yourself with their qualities when cooked at home. Generally, whole pulses, which retain the outer skin, will keep their shape when cooked while split pulses, with outer skin removed, will breakdown when cooked. It really depends what end result you have in mind. Dhals vary in texture dependent on type and length of cooking time. They can be very soft in a soupy broth to just soft in a thicker broth. It really comes down to what your personal preferences and applications are.
In the recipe that follows I used whole deep reddish brown masoor lentils. As you can see when cooked they remain in tact suspended in a rich thick broth. Feel free to use pulses that are available to you. The results will be equally satisfying.
Sabut Masoor Dhal: serves 4
- 1 cup/8oz whole masoor (reddish brown) lentils
- ½ teaspoon ground turmeric powder
- ½ cup minced onion
- 1 garlic clove, minced
- 4 cups of water + more as needed
- 1 teaspoon sea salt
- 3 small dried red chillies, whole
- 2 tablespoons ghee (clarified butter) or unsalted butter
- 1 teaspoon panch phoron (5 spice mix) See recipe below.
- 1/8 teaspoon grated or powdered asafoatida/hing (optional) See note.
Pick through the lentils and rinse well. Place them in a large sauce pan along with the turmeric, onions, and garlic. Place over medium heat, bring to a boil, and boil for 5 minutes. Skim off any foam that has formed on the surface and discard. Lower the heat to a simmer and stir in the sea salt and add the whole dried chillies. Cover the pan with a lid and gently simmer for 30 minutes, stirring several times.
Test the lentils to see if they have softened. Cooking time can vary greatly depending on the age of the lentils. If they are not soft, add more water and continue to cook until the lentils are soft, but still in tact for this recipe. Ideally the water will have been mostly absorbed by the time the lentils have finished cooking.
Place the ghee (or butter) in the bowl of a metal ladle and hold it over a burner or flame until it is melted and bubbling rapidly. Add the five spice mix and swirl the ladle until the spices are tempered and releasing a rich toasted aroma; about 45 seconds. Then carefully lower the ladle into the center of the simmering lentils. It will sizzle at first. When the sizzling has stopped stir the contents into the lentils. Add the asafoetida (if using) and stir to combine. Continue to simmer for five minutes, then remove from the stove, cover with the lid, and set the pan aside to steep for 20 minutes.
Remove the whole chillies from the dhal before serving or use them as a garnish with a warning to the chile adverse. They are hot! Garnish with fresh coriander leaves.
Suggestion: Try scattering the cold lentils over a fresh greens salad tossed with a lime coriander leaf vinaigrette!
Panch Phoron ( 5 spice mix):
- 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
- 1 teaspoon brown mustard seeds
- 1 teaspoon fennel seeds
- 1 teaspoon nigella seeds (black cumin)
- 1 teaspoon fenugreek seeds
Combine the whole seeds and store in an airtight jar. Used whole and tempered in sizzling ghee or dry roasted to release and the flavors.
Note: asafoetida is made from the dried gum of a rhizome in south Asia. It is used as a flavor enhancer and digestive aid that is purported to reduce flatulence. Available in South Asian markets.