Dal is the ultimate comfort food. Economical, tasty and satisfying, I more or less cook it on a weekly basis. Dal is to an Indian what frijoles are to a Mexican and it’s served as an accompaniment to most meals. They do say that variety is the spice of life and luckily there are limitless permutations of pulses, tempered spices and breads to dip in your dal.
One of my favourite breakfast dishes is thosai; a thin pancake made from a fermented batter of ground rice and black gram lentils served with chutneys, sambhar or dal. Yes, I’m talking about a curry for breakfast! I don’t have to justify myself as it’s perfectly acceptable over here. 50% of my genes are of Indo-Malayan origin, after all. Unfortunately, the obligatory overnight soaking and fermentation of thosai necessitates at least 12 hours of forethought (I wish I’d inherited more of my dad’s organisation), which is not terribly useful when a sudden dal craving strikes. Today was one of those days so I resorted to the speedier and simpler combo of chapati and dal.
Chapati must be the easiest bread or roti to make ever. It is an unleavened flatbread made from just three ingredients: whole-wheat or atta flour, salt and water, though my mum also adds yoghurt to the mix for a softer texture. As there is no rising time, you can be eating a piping hot chapati in less than twenty minutes from now.
On the other hand, dal is cooked slowly to achieve an unctuous, creamy consistency. I prefer this dal porridge-like; not too thick but not too thin and soupy. It’s cooked in two stages. First, the lentils (I’m using red-split lentils or masoor dal) are slow-cooked for about an hour (you can speed up the process if you have a pressure cooker) before adding a sizzling garnish or tarka of crispy shallots, garlic, chilli, curry leaves, cumin and mustard seeds. Tempering enhances the flavour of the spices as it releases their aromatic oils and, well, I really like the texture and ever-so-slightly singed taste of crispy onions in a dal.
The good news is that dal improves with age, so I tend to make a huge vat in one go. You can also freeze the dal base in smaller portions (before adding the tempered spices), so you only have to defrost, reheat and spoon over the sizzling spice mix. Yum.
RECIPE: RED-SPLIT LENTIL DAL or PARIPPU
1 cup of red-split lentils
3 cups of water
A whole dried chilli
1 inch of ginger root
One teaspoon of turmeric
Two or three finely sliced shallots
Two sliced cloves of garlic
One chilli, deseeded and finely shredded
Ten curry leaves
One teaspoon of mustard seeds
Half a teaspoon of cumin seeds
INSTRUCTIONS: Rinse the lentils thoroughly and bring to the boil. Skim off any scum that forms on the surface with a tablespoon. Lower the heat and add in the dried chilli, ginger root, peppercorns and turmeric. Cover and simmer gently for an hour (the longer the better) until the lentils are tender and disintegrating. Uncover and reduce further for a thicker dal or add more water for a more soupy consistency. Season with salt at this stage. It may just be an old wives tale, but my mother says that adding the salt at the beginning makes the lentils tough.
Fry the shallots in oil or ghee for a couple of minutes until translucent. Add the garlic cloves and cook for a further four minutes until golden-brown. Add the shredded chilli, mustard and cumin seeds and cook for a couple of minutes longer until fragrant and the mustard seeds begin to pop. Spoon over the dal, stir and serve with a hot chapati.
2 cups of atta or whole-wheat flour
A teaspoon of salt
1 cup of warm water to bind
INSTRUCTIONS: Mix together the flour, salt and enough water to form a ball of dough. A tip is to try and do this using just one hand, so the other is not caked with sticky dough (useful for impromptu tasks like turning taps on). Knead for five minutes until the dough is smooth and pliable and leave to rest for ten minutes. Shape the dough into golf-sized balls, which should form a chapati the size of a standard frying pan. Working on a slightly floured surface, flatten the ball with the palm of your hand and roll it out into a thin disc by slightly rotating the chapati after each roll. I roll out the second chapati whilst the first is cooking. You can roll them all out if you prefer, but don’t stack them on top of each other or they’ll stick together. Heat up a heavy based frying pan and rub the surface with a scrunched up ball of kitchen paper soaked in oil. Lay on the chapati and let it cook for just 15 seconds before flipping it over. Cook for about a minute and you’ll see bubbles starting to form. (I use this time to roll out the next chapati) Flip it back over and it should begin to balloon. Gently pressing down on the air bubbles with a fish slice redistributes them more evenly, so the chapati should puff up completely after another 30 seconds or so. If you’re not feeling health-conscious, you can now make up for the lack of oil used in frying by slathering each chapati with melted ghee. Repeat until you have a pile of blistering chapatis, rip of a piece to dunk in the dal and enjoy…