Indian Dal, which doubles as Spicy Lentil Soup


Indian Dal, which doubles as Spicy Lentil Soup


Essential in an Indian or Pakistani dinner, simmered spicy “lentil” dishes, collectively called “dal,” are the base of meals throughout the Indian subcontinent. I put “lentil” in quotes because dal includes many different dry legumes, from lentils with or without their hulls, to various beans, to dried peas and split chickpeas. Rich in protein, fiber and nutrients, the various dals, or “pulses,” are ubiquitous in South Asian cooking, and eaten daily. For populations that are predominantly vegetarian for religious or economic reasons, dal provides the main regular source of protein, iron, certain vitamins, and dietary fiber. Throughout South Asia, dal is typically eaten with either rice or whole-wheat flat bread called “roti” or “chapati.”


Dal served with Basmati Rice
Aside from the economic and nutritional importance of the various dals, they can be prepared into stunningly tasty dishes. I had the good fortune when we lived in Malaysia to learn to cook dal from an Indian Sikh lady, Mrs. Majumdar Singh, who made her dal in the Punjabi style with “channa dal” (split, hulled small chickpeas). But most of the Indians in Malaysia were from South India, so I also learned the Tamil “rasam” and “parapu,” and the Malayalee “dalcha,” which used other dry legumes, from moong beans to black lentils to “toor” dal, and different seasonings. Some of these were cooked with vegetables, like eggplant, green beans, and “drumsticks.” In my own dal cooking both for home dining and for sale at the restaurant I use basically Mrs. Majumdar Singh’s method for channa dal but more often now use “masoor” dal, which are hulled and split red lentils. They cook more quickly and can be absolutely delicious.


Here’s the simplified way I now cook dal. Occasionally I use other legumes, like channa dal or split, hulled moong dal, or I add vegetables like spinach or green beans or zucchini (as a substitute for Asian gourds). But mostly it’s just the dal. Also I cook the spices, onion and butter (the traditional clarified butter – ghee – is harder to find) into the simmering dal rather than use the more complicated “tadka” method of frying the spices, onions and dried chilies in ghee and stirring it all in at the end.


As it turns out, dal, especially when made from split red lentils (masoor), also makes a delightful soup for Western-style dining, if diluted with a little water to the desired thickness. It’s like a vegetarian split pea soup, though more assertive with spice and character.


Masoor dal, split and hulled red (or “Egyptian”) lentils, are available inexpensively at supermarkets, Indian stores, and natural food stores. The spices are relatively readily available at the same places.


The recipe makes a little over a quart, enough for six people as part of a curry dinner, or four hearty bowls of soup for a Western-style lunch or supper.


1 1/2 cup red lentils

5 cups water

3 tablespoons butter (or vegetable oil for a vegan dish)

1 small onion finely chopped

1 1/2 teaspoons turmeric

1 1/4 teaspoons whole cumin seeds (or ground as a second choice)

1/2 teaspoon whole coriander seeds (or ground as a second choice)

1/2 teaspoon crushed dry red pepper or cayenne

1 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste

Coarsely chopped cilantro for garnish


Rinse and drain the lentils. Place in a pot with the water. Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally. Skim off and discard the foam that arises as the lentils boil.


Add the butter, onion and spices (not the salt), and simmer over low heat, stirring occasionally and scraping the bottom of the pot, until lentils are tender and start to disintegrate, 25-30 minutes. If the mixture is getting somewhat dry, add a little water.
Add the salt and simmer a few more minutes.


Remove from the heat, taste for salt and add a little if needed. Let cool.


Reheat to serve. Top lightly with coarsely chopped cilantro leaves when using as part of an Indian meal with rice or chapati.


If served as a soup in the Western manner, the cilantro is optional.

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