There's something about a hot bowl of dal — something that instantly calms every nerve in me and brings joy that's hard to express in words. It has an inherent nature to instill a feeling of comfort like the caress of a loved one on my skin.
Today, I've one of my favourites and an extremely simple recipe of a common Indian dal, chana dal. This dal is the split without-skin version of the smaller dark skinned Indian chickpea, which is also called Bengal gram or kala chana. With its skin removed, it has a slightly sweet taste, and imparts a thick texture upon cooking. In its uncooked form, it's also used as a nutty agent while tempering/seasoning dishes like upma.
During one of the To Desi From Desh sessions run by Ragini Kashyap, a guest asked what would we describe as a quintessential Indian dish. Quite a tough question! Considering India's geography and cultural diversity and the way cuisines change almost every 100 kms, picking one dish that could represent India's food scene is next to impossible. One dish could perhaps do some justice in this context, dal. No matter which part of India you go to, you will find some form of dal in your meals. In some places, like the much colder and much northern parts of the country, dals actually rule the roost where vegetables can be hard to grow or find in the winter.
When I say dal, I mean different varieties of lentils grown and cooked in different parts of the country in different ways. I mention the word 'different' thrice in a single sentence. But, that's what Indian cuisine encompasses. From thick to thin in consistency, seasoned with varied spices, alliums and herbs depending on the region, dals are staple in the Indian diet. Whether on their own or complimented with vegetables or meat, dals can change the face of a dish in a significant way, bringing a whole new level of texture, flavour and health benefits. Bonus, they're a cheaper source of proteins.
Lentils are one variety of pulses, which are dried seeds of legume plants. In Indian cuisine, when we say dal, we usually mean lentils. However, dals in India can be thought as the whole family of dried beans, pulses, legumes and split peas. Dals in India include many versions of the same legume or pulses. For example, whole with skin, whole without skin, split with skin and split without skin. While these dals make thick or thin soupy dishes, they're also used to make savoury cakes, pancakes, pastas, snacks, starters, dry chutneys and sweet desserts.
My version of chana dal!
No one taught me to make this dal! This is not a family recipe or handed-down by anyone I know or one that's filled with sweet nostalgia! I don't have any stories to share about how and why I came to make this chana dal, this way. But some recipes have to be like that, no? Created in the most obscure moments we don't remember. To think of, it most likely has to be one of those mundane days when a best-loved combination emerged from the many variations I try in my tadkas, and sticked.
Many-many years later while researching about what is it about tadka/tempering in Indian cooking, I learned from Ragini's nani-ma (grandmother) that she too adds fennel seeds in her chana dal tadka! For me that moment is special, that moment of realization that your mundane is someone else's mundane too. A kinship in its own accord built unknowingly across many kitchens beyond borders.
Since chana dal is a bit sweet in taste, seasoning it with spicy things imparts a good balance. Honestly, the seasoning is what renders the flavour to this dal. I like to season it at two stages— first while boiling it (with ginger, turmeric and salt) which helps the dal absorb and mingle with flavours and second is the final top-note with spices and garlic bloomed in fat along with browned onions and mushy tomatoes that carries the flavour to your olfactory senses. This second seasoning is known as tadka/vaghaar/chaunk in Indian cooking, a method which is known as tempering in English. See my Tur Dal recipe for more context on tempering/tadka.
Like I said before, a dal's heart lies in its tadka, and this chana dal tadka is something I learnt on my own. The combination of fennel seeds with mustard and cumin coupled with garlic and chilies bloomed in hot ghee is what gives this dal its character.
You can serve this with rotis or rice. I'm a rice lover, so you'll find me titling towards it more. But it really goes well with rotis and a side of some slightly dry vegetable preparation like okra, cauliflower, bitter gourds, eggplants a green leafy stir fry or a simple cucumber onion salad.
I smile as I write the recipe on the blog hoping that my kith and kin and possibly my children will make it someday (just as my husband makes it from my blog) and remember me while relishing it. And, they would say Lopa makes this amazing dal!
I make an Andhra version of this dal too with curry leaves and coconut, but that's for another day.
The magic of this chana dal recipe is completely in the tadka! There are many variations that you can make to these ingredients:
Onion, Ginger, Garlic
Red chilli powder
Dry red chilies
I particularly love the flavour of fennel seeds tempered in ghee with this dal, and I normally don't skip it. The rest are all up for permutations and combinations! For tempering, always heat the oil/ghee first, followed by seeds like mustard, cumin, fennel, etc., then add dry red chilies for smokiness followed by asafoetida, and then add more prone-to-burn ingredients like ginger, garlic and green chilies and dry spices like red chilli powder.
You can also add tomatoes to the dal while boiling it instead of the tadka/tempering. Tomatoes can sometimes make the dal a bit sweet, and chana dal itself is on the sweeter side. So, I squeeze lime once the dal is ready and serve it with extra lime wedges for added sourness if desired.
For boiling the dal: 1/2 cup chana dal or Bengal gram, 1.5 cups water, 1/2 tsp turmeric, few slices of ginger, 1/2 tsp salt
For the tadka: 2 tbsp ghee (or oil), 1 tsp cumin seeds, 1/2 tsp mustard seeds, 1/4 tsp fennel seeds, 1 small onion sliced, 1 small tomato chopped fine, 2 whole dried red chilies, a pinch of asafoetida (optional), 3-4 cloves of garlic, 1/2 tsp red chilli powder Note: Onions are optional. If not using onions, reduce ghee/oil to 1/2 tbsp
More salt to adjust taste
3-4 tbsp cilantro, chopped
1 lime cut into wedges
Wash and soak chana dal for 1-2 hours or at least 20 minutes. Note: If you don't soak the dal, you will need to cook it longer. So, soaking is good but not that you can't cook without it. Also, remember soaking lentils removes anti-nutrients like lectins and phytates.
In a pressure cooker, add everything mentioned for boiling the dal, and cook on medium to high heat for 1 whistle and on medium to low heat for 3-4 whistles. Once done, remove pressure cooker pot from heat and keep aside to let the steam release naturally. Or Cook in a pot for 30-40 minutes or until the dal is tender and cooked but holds shape.
In a kadhai or pan, heat ghee or oil. Once hot, add cumin seeds, fennel seeds, dry red chilies and asafoetida. Let everything crackle and then add garlic. Sauté for a few seconds without burning the garlic, and then add the onions. Stir and let the onions turn golden brown. Add the tomatoes, mix and let them turn mushy.
Meanwhile, open the pressure cooker/pot and check the dal. If you feel it's too thick, add hot water accordingly. Stir and add salt to adjust taste.
Pour the dal over the hot sizzling tadka or vice versa. Squeeze half a lime, and give a good stir and let the dal simmer for 3-4 minutes to adjust consistency. Add chopped cilantro on top and serve with extra lime wedges for desired tanginess.