My earliest memories of food are associated with a bowl of hot yellow dal. It tended to be tur or split moong on most occasions, split masoor at times. My favourite was always tur though. Cooped up with a book by a window in the house, I could always hear the pressure cooker hiss on the gas stove, the quintessential melody of Indian kitchens. It wouldn't be long before mother took the sibilating pot off the heat, and the smell of ghee melting in a kadhai would pull me out of my reveries amidst one of the many fictions I read.
I would dawdle behind mother as she readied the chaunk (tempering), the crackle of cumin or the dance of mustard seeds filling my heart with glee, and I would eagerly wait for a sip. Ah! There are fewer things in life more precious than these simple joys.
When we return home from long trips, I usually make this dal—understated and subtle. Even Indian restaurants cannot attain this longing. It has to be homemade, and for me, a bowl of home cooked dal is comfort food on any place on earth. If you have a pressure cooker, it takes a whistle or two to boil. An instant pot does the job in less than five minutes. Then comes the tempering, which is extremely undemanding, and yet immediately transforms the dal from frugal to divine. As my husband says, "Nothing like yellow dal. Simple food is so underrated."
There's something magical about seasoning a dal. Every home kitchen in India has a small rounded deep pan, called tadka pan. The experienced women and men of Indian kitchen don't tend to these specialized pans though. They will heat the oil or ghee in a kadchhi, a type of ladle, so artfully that it wouldn't burn the metal, add the seasoning and toss it on the dal. This tadka is not just for flavour. The healthy fat in the tadka is essential for absorption of fat soluble vitamins while Ayurveda has explained the anti-inflammatory and medicinal properties of many spices like cumin, mustard, turmeric, fenugreek, chilies, curry leaves, coriander, garlic used in the tempering. A tadka thus ensures our overall wellbeing while adding a riot of flavours to the dishes!
During tadka or tempering, the fat content is satiated by the oil. And when heated with the spices, a breakdown occurs and the released vitamins are absorbed by the oil or ghee. This, when consumed, makes it easier for the body to process these vitamins, or in other words, it is more bioavailable. - From an article in The Better India
All split dals in the Indian food repertoire are easy to cook. The key lies in the tempering which is done afterwards, often just before serving. Since these dals cook faster and are lighter on the stomach, they're a common sight in the daily Indian meal plates. Paired with rice or flatbreads, these powerhouses of protein are made almost everyday in Indian households.
This recipe is my simplest version of tur dal, split pigeon peas. You can make red lentils, split masoor dal, in the same fashion as well. If I am longing the typical tempering my mother makes, I season it with mustard and garlic. Otherwise, I temper it with cumin, asafoetida and red chilies. My preferred medium for tempering dal is always ghee. Choose a healthy trans fat free ghee and use it judiciously in your dals. A little bit goes a long way in tempering and makes big shifts in the overall taste. A good ghee is way better and healthier than refined oil—remember that! If you're vegan, use a good cold pressed oil of your choice.
Tur dal upon boiling can sometimes lend a runny texture. If you're fond of dals with a thin consistency, then you wouldn't complain. In fact, I love thinner dals with rice. To get a slightly thick consistency in the tur dal, add about a teaspoon of yellow moong dal to it. The slimy characteristic of moong will help bind the tur dal well and the result will be a thick texture.
Careful with the ratio though. Only a spoon of moong is enough.
Dal by itself has no special flavours. All the magic is in the seasoning. You'll be surprised how a simple tadka/chaunk can make so much difference.
For boiling the dal: 1/2 cup pigeon peas (plus 1 tsp yellow split moong dal - optional) washed and soaked for at least 20 minutes, 1 cup water, 1/4 tsp turmeric, 1/4 tsp salt, 1 small tomato finely chopped
For the cumin tadka: 1 tsp ghee (or oil), 1 tsp cumin seeds, 1/4 tsp asafoetida, 1/2-inch ginger chopped, 1 green chili finely chopped, 1 tsp red chili powder OR For the mustard tadka: 1 tsp ghee (or oil), 1 tsp mustard seeds, 3-4 garlic cloves roughly crushed, 2 green chilies slit Note: Refrain from olive oil for tadka as it has a low smoking point. To create a proper healthy tadka, you must use an oil with high smoking point that will let the let the spices sizzle accordingly.
Fresh coriander leaves (cilantro) to garnish
In a pressure cooker, add the dal and water along with turmeric and salt, and cook on high flame for 1 whistle and medium to low flame for another whistle. Turn off the heat, and keep the pressure cooker aside.
Let the pressure release on its own. Open and check the consistency and doneness of the dal. Add salt as needed now. At this stage, you may add hot boiling water to make it thinner in consistency.
For the cumin tadka: In a fry pan, add ghee and heat it. Once hot, add cumin seeds, green chili and ginger and let them simmer for a few seconds. Then, add asafoetida and red chili. For the mustard tadka: In a fry pan, add ghee and heat it. Once hot, add mustard seeds, garlic and green chilies. Move the tadka pan in circular motion taking it off the heat, so that the chili does not burn and all ingredients get combined. Immediately pour this hot tadka on the dal and close the pressure cooker with its lid without locking it. This will help the aroma of the tadka penetrate inside the dal.
Keep the dal on low heat to simmer if you wish to adjust the consistency. If you do so, remove the lid and continue.
Garnish with cilantro and serve with lime wedges.