The Indian kitchen without some lentils or beans must be a rarity. Whichever part of India you are in and whatever the type of cuisine prevails there, lentils and beans will definitely find their way into the daily menu in one form or the other.
This is not surprising considering that lentils and beans are our primary source of protein, especially for the vegetarians amongst us.
While there are at least a hundred different ways of cooking them in India, not all of them are very complicated. Many of them are very easy to conjure up and take very little time too, if you do not count the time needed for soaking and cooking.
I get around this by pressure cooking a slightly larger amount of lentils when I have to, and then freeze them in single use portions.
The simplest way (and one of the best ways) of eating lentils that I know of is mixing well cooked and mashed cooked red gram lentils (tuvar dal), some salt and home-made ghee with hot rice. While this doesn’t sound particularly exciting, those who have grown up eating lentils this way will agree that there’s something very special about this.
Very small children are usually fed lentils this way as there’s no spice in it and this mix has the right combination of carbohydrates, protein and fat.
Even the traditional festive feasts (or sadhyas) in our Palakkad Iyer community begin with this rice-lentil combination.
Dal tadka is a North Indian style of preparing lentils where the cooked lentils, usually red gram lentils (tuvar dal) or split moong lentils, are tempered with spices. This lentil preparation has the warmth of the spices added to it, but not the fire.
In Indian cooking, tempering involves heating a little oil to which small amounts of various spices such as mustard seeds, cumin seeds, black gram lentils (urad dal), curry leaves, asafoetida or others are added. The result is an undeniably Indian flavour and aroma.
The spices used in tempering can be different for different dishes.
There are probably as many versions of this dal as there are people who prepare it. Some add ginger and garlic as well. I do to occasionally, but haven’t here.
This recipe uses amchur , which is dried and powdered mango, to give the dal a very slight tang. You could substitute this with a little tamarind paste or add a finely chopped tomato instead. The taste would be a bit different but just as good.
This particular version is probably the most basic one of dal tadka. I have adapted it from the Sept-Oct 2005 issue of Tarla Dalal’s Cooking And More magazine.
1 1/2 cups cooked red gram lentils (tuvar dal)*
1 1/2 tsp oil
1 tsp mustard seeds
1 tsp coriander powder
1 tsp cumin powder
1 tsp amchur (dried mango) powder
1/4 tsp red chilli powder
1/4 tsp turmeric powder
2 to 3 dried red chillies, each torn into 3 or 4
5 or 6 curry leaves
salt to taste
* Cook the red gram lentils (tuvar dal) in enough water till soft and well cooked but still retaining their shape. If there is a lot of water with the cooked lentils, decant the liquid and save it for use in this dal.
Lightly break the lentils with a wooden spoon such that they are not puréed but still retain a lot of their texture.
Heat the oil in a pan and add the mustard seeds. When they splutter, turn down the heat to minimum and add the coriander powder, cumin powder, amchur powder, red chilli powder, turmeric powder, the red chillies and the curry leaves.
Stir quickly a couple of times taking care that the spices do not burn.
Now add the lentils and about a cup of the liquid saved from cooking the lentils. If this liquid proves insufficient add some water. Add the salt, stir well and bring the lentils to a boil.
Turn down the heat to medium and cook for about 3 to 5 minutes till the dal has come together. Add a little water, if necessary to thin the dal if required.
The tadka dal, when done, should be the consistency of a thick pouring sauce, neither too thick nor too thin.
Serve hot as main side dish, with chappathis or parathas. This lentil preparation can also be thinned odwn a bit and served as soup with bread.
This recipe should serve 4 to 6 people.