One percent of India and bowl of dal, please.

The first hint that I would never truly tame Indian food came early on in my cooking education. Having run out of storebought garam masala, I decided to grind my own from a spice collection that had, by then, grown quite large. I confidently turned to my cookbooks and pulled down Indian Cooking by Madhur Jaffey, which listed one recipe. Classic Indian Cooking by Julie Sahni listed two recipes. 1000 Indian Recipes by Neelam Batra listed five recipes. Then I picked up The Art of Indian Vegetarian Cooking by Yamuna Devi, which listed a staggering eight recipes. None of the recipes I found were alike, and that was just the first four books I pulled. I could have wept cardamom pods.

Spinach moong masoor dalEventually I followed Sahni’s advice and made two garam masalas, one a delicate cardamom-based masala for yogurt and cream dishes, and the other a hearty cumin- and coriander-based masala for onion and tomato dishes. But the garam masala was only my first lesson in humility. The full scope of my ignorance became even more apparent as food blogs exploded and talented Indian cooks posted about their native foods with an authenticity and skill that I will never achieve. At one time I thought I could conquer 10 percent of Indian cuisine. The vastness of India and its countless regional and personal variations killed that hope. Now I’m shooting for an ambitious one percent. Wish me luck.

However much I don’t know about Indian food, I can still write about it with love. Mystery is as good in food as it is in lovers; it keeps you on your toes. Sometimes I take a break from Indian cooking. When I come back to it I always wonder why I ever left. I never tire of cumin seeds oozing streams of tiny bubbles in hot oil, onions darkening into shades of burnished oak and maple, and turmeric invading the weave of my apron no matter how I try to keep it clean. It’s a fabulous time. Here’s one of my favorite recipes; I hope you love it too.

Serves 2 as a meal, 4 as a side
Adapted from a recipe from Spice of India in Kitchener, Ontario

This was posted on an online cooking forum as “the best dal ever.” The poster tells me that it’s from an Indian grocery store owned by a Gujarti woman. I don’t know if it’s the best dal ever, but it’s my personal favorite because of the addition of silky baby spinach. It makes fantastic leftovers, so much so that I almost never eat this the day I make it. You can serve this with yogurt, breads, or any sides you’d like, but I love it just as it is, slurped hot from a spoon. The recipe doubles easily.

· 1/2 cup red lentils (masoor dal)
· 2 Tablespoons split hulled green mung lentils (moong dal)
· 1 3/4 cups water
· 2 Tablespoons ghee or oil
· 1 medium onion, thinly sliced
· 1 medium tomato, diced
· 1/4 teaspoon whole cumin seed
· 3/4 teaspoon salt
· 1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
· 1/2 teaspoon garam masala
· 1/2 teaspoon teaspoon ground chili pepper or to taste
· 1/2 teaspoon amchur (dried green mango) or 1 teaspoon lemon juice
· 6 ounces baby spinach (more or less is fine)

1) Pick over the lentils and remove shriveled bits and pebbles. Rinse thoroughly until the water runs clear. Drain.

2) Place lentils in a medium pot with the water. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat and keep lentils at a gentle simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally. Add some hot water if the mixture seems too thick. Keep in mind that lentils thicken a bit after cooling, so keeping the pot just a bit on the watery side is best.

3) While the lentils cook, place a medium pan on medium heat. Heat the ghee until it shimmers, then add the cumin seeds. They should sizzle immediately. After about 15 seconds, add the onion slices and fry, stirring frequently, until they turn sticky and brown.

4) Add the diced tomato to the onions and cook until the tomato disintegrates. Add the remaining spices and cook until the mixture becomes pasty and thick, several more minutes.

5) When the lentils are tender (this takes 20-30 minutes), add the spinach to the lentils and stir, working in batches if necessary so that the spinach wilts and makes room for additional spinach. Pour the onion/tomato mixture into the lentils and spinach, stir well, then cover and let sit for a few minutes to cook the spinach and develop flavors. Taste and adjust for salt before serving.


bullet Link du jour
Mallika at Quick Indian Cooking recently posted a recipe for a similar Dhal Palak (spinach lentils).

17 thoughts on “One percent of India and bowl of dal, please.

  1. The hot spices cooked in ghee that you add just before the end of cooking a dhal is called a bagara and this is what turns an OK dhal into something very special. Mum mum makes great dhal! Next time you make dhal try varying your bagara ingredients to include haldi, dhania and chilli. You can have lots of fun experimenting with it!

  2. Trig: Great ideas! Are a bagara and a tarka the same thing? It looks like haldi is turmeric (that’s in there), and the recipe does include chili, though it’s ground.

  3. I am bookmarking this one–I just started reading Mangos and Curry Leaves, a big book devoted to Southeast Asian cooking and am a bit overwhelmed by it all. One of my coworkers is Indian and she gives me lessons occassionally–that helps a ton!

  4. Annie – lovely recipe. It looks so yummy. Bagara and tarka are the same thing indeedy. You’re really good with the ingredients, I wish more people would be just as experimental and cook the food they love to eat…

  5. Hi Annie, that photo looks delicious. Did you use the cumin-based garam masala? Do you know of any links that post a good recipe for either that one or the coriander one? I would love to try making a garam masala, but I would not know where to turn.

  6. I have Julie Sahni’s book and want to make some of the recipes since I am a HYOOOGE fan of Indian food in any form. This recipe sounds wonderful, I may just make this instead.

  7. catherine: Thanks! I hope you like the dal.

    erin: I don’t have that book, but I do have their baking book and their rice book, and the authors are wonderful.

    Mallika: Thanks! I love reading and learning from your site.

    Erielle: Because of the onion in the recipe, I did use the cumin-based masala. Now that you mention it, I think I’ll post about the two garam masalas I made. Both are based on cookbooks I admire, so they should provide good starting points for first-timers. I’ll start on that now and maybe post it next week.

    Kate: I adore Sahni’s book, it’s my absolute favorite. She hasn’t steered me wrong yet.

  8. Looks totally delish! Sounds to me like a comfort food on a bowl. You’ve added one of my fave leafy veg… spinach. Yum.

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  10. Hi! I just found your blog (through your paneer writeup). Thank you for acknowledging the variety of Indian food. I am so tired of explaining to people in US that the orange creamy stuff people get in the restaurant is not at all representative of the food that you get all over India, and no everything is definitely not called curry!
    I love your amusing writeup style (cry cardamom pods :)) ) and great recipes. I will try this one too.

  11. The first hint that I would never truly tame Indian food came early on in my cooking education.

    Ain’t that the truth? And Yamuna Devi’s book gets even crazier when you read the notes and realize how many variations on each recipe there are… I was luck enough to spend 3 weeks in Kerala, Karnataka & Tamil Nadu last winter; we had sambar with almost every breakfast and rassam with almost every dinner, and I don’t think we had the same recipe for either dish twice.

    (I found you because I was googling for cauliflower & lentil recipes… What I found wasn’t quite what I had in mind, but I’ll definitely be back! Hope your job search is looking up…)

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