If you’ve ever wanted to try making Indian food at home, start with dal. Think of it as the stepping-stone Indian dish. Next to rice, nothing could be easier or more essential. Dal refers to both legumes (peas, lentils or beans) which have been hulled and split and to the stew-like dishes created from these legumes. You can find many types of dal in the Indian grocery store: toor dal is made from yellow pigeon peas; mung dal is made from mung beans and so forth. In addition to varying pulses, dal recipes vary even more from region to region and family to family.
My husband is from the spice coast of southern India, Kerala. This is his recipe, which of course now makes it our family’s recipe. Because he misses food from his homeland and because I have purposefully avoided learning how to make anything from there, he has developed a talent for cooking it. Any small whim or memory can set him off on recreating a meal from his youth. The task brings him a satisfaction that I wouldn’t dream of stealing. He owns this corner of the culinary map, which has saved me from having to feed everyone night after night—a daily imperative that could easily steal my joy for cooking.
So our family has established a tradition of dedicating Sundays to Indian cuisine. The Man is the executive chef; we help out as occasional kitchen grunts. The weekly curries change, but dal and rice—the foundation foods of our Indian feast— remain constant. The Man’s main recipe uses masoor dal, split red lentils. He has taught me to cook it, and I have, but of course his always tastes better.
- 1 cup split red lentils (masoor dal)
- 1 medium onion, thinly sliced
- 2 T oil
- 1 t cumin seeds
- ½ t kosher salt
- 3 + ½ cups stock or water
- 2 paste tomatoes, cored and chopped
- ¼ cup chopped cilantro
- In medium sauce pan, heat oil over a medium-high flame until hot. Add cumin seeds and cook until the aroma is released–-about 30 seconds.
- Quickly add the chopped onion and salt. Sauté until the onion is golden—about 6 -8 minutes.
- Next add the lentils, 3 cups of water or stock, and stir. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium and cook uncovered for about 10 minutes stirring occasionally. (The lentils should be nearly cooked).
- Add chopped tomatoes and cook another 3 minutes. Add more liquid if it appears too thick.
- Remove from heat, stir in cilantro, and adjust seasoning. Serve with rice.
Add a green chili or dried red chili if you like a bit of heat. Add a cup of chopped tender greens like spinach or cabbage at the end and cook for a minute or 2 if you want an even heartier dal.
For the stock:water ratio, the Man usually uses 2½ cups stock and the rest water.
If you’ve never before tried red lentils, please do. Not only do they take little time to prepare (an exceptional trait among legumes) they have a unique flavor—rich, peppery, and satisfying with little additional flavorings or spices. Moreover, they are a nutritional powerhouse. A grain (rice) and a legume (red lentil) eaten together give us all the essential protein we need, eliminating the need for animal proteins. Many Indian families, including ours, eat just this combination of rice and dal with a bit of yogurt and a chutney or veggie for a complete meal.
Cooking with Kids:
This is less about cooking with kids than eating with kids. If your kids are anything like mine, the first time they see anything new on their plate they scream, and yes, sometimes even cry, which inspires fantasies of sending them off as volunteers to a distant refugee camp where they might learn some gratitude for the food on their plates and roof over their heads! That is how I know that some of you are thinking right now that your kids will never eat something like Indian food. But this dish is pretty tame. Once they get past the initial fit and put it in their mouth, I bet they will like dal, perhaps not immediately but soon. Remember, it may take up to 18 exposures to a new food before you can safely say that you don’t like it; that goes for kids and adults. So try serving it at least a few times before you give up…for awhile. My kids (like the nearly 1 billion kids in India) have grown to love dal. And once they like the dal and rice, well then we can start making some really tantalizing South Indian curries to go with them.