Lentils That Stay True to the Spirit of Indian Dal, Without the Esoteric Ingredients

Slate's Culture Blog
Sept. 19 2012 1:02 PM

You’re Doing It Wrong: Lentils

Green or Brown Lentil Dal

Juliana Jiménez Jaramillo forSlate.

Lentils are eaten in many parts of the world, but no cuisine has done as much with them, and as artfully, as that of the South Asian subcontinent. The seemingly endless variety of dal—which refers both to dried lentils (and other legumes) and to various spiced stews made with them—can be overwhelming to anyone whose only lentil experience consists of the dull, salty sludge that occasionally gets soup-of-the-day status in American lunch joints. Consider the number of regions in and around India, the range of legumes (both whole and split), and the array of spices used in South Asian cooking, and you’ll get a sense of how many variations of dal exist. There are enough to make Stephin Merrit’s oeuvre of love songs look scanty by comparison.

L.V. Anderson L.V. Anderson

L.V. Anderson is a Slate assistant editor. She edits Slate's food and drink sections and writes Brow Beat's recipe column, You're Doing It Wrong. 

What most versions of dal have in common is a last-minute addition known as a chaunk or tarka: whole spices cooked in oil or butter until fragrant. Cooking spices separately from the lentils may sound like a needless step, but it intensifies their essence and results in an incomparably flavorful soup.


The main problem with trying to replicate authentic Indian dals in America is sourcing: Unless you live near an Indian grocery, you’ll be hard-pressed to find mung beans, tamarind, ghee, and asafetida, for instance. But it’s possible to stay true to the spirit of dal using ingredients readily available in most supermarkets: brown or green lentils, Roma tomatoes, and a few more or less mainstream spices.

About those spices: They must be fresh, or the exercise will be pointless. If a whiff from the jar doesn’t make your nostrils tingle, a spice is probably stale. Equally important are the more perishable but no less potent additions called for in this recipe: garlic, ginger, cilantro, lemon juice, and—perhaps most crucially—jalapeños. Even if you’re a total wimp and can’t tolerate more than a few Scoville units, add at least one seeded jalapeño. If, on the other hand, you like to impress your friends by dousing everything you eat with Tabasco sauce, add two or even three chiles, and leave the fiery seeds in.

Green or Brown Lentil Dal
Yield: 8 to 12 servings
Time: About 1 hour

1 pound dried green or brown lentils, rinsed and picked over
1 pound fresh Roma tomatoes, chopped
1 or 2 medium fresh jalapeños, seeded and minced
2 inches fresh ginger, peeled and minced or grated
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 teaspoons ground coriander
2 teaspoons ground turmeric
¼ cup grapeseed or peanut oil
¼ cup (½ stick) butter
1 tablespoon cumin seeds
1 cinnamon stick
4 whole cloves
2 medium yellow onions, chopped
½ teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
1 bunch cilantro, roughly chopped, thick stems discarded
Salt and black pepper
Juice of 1 lemon
Cooked basmati rice for serving (optional)

1. Put the lentils, half the tomatoes, and the jalapeños, ginger, garlic, coriander, and turmeric in a large pot; add enough water to cover by 1½  inches. Cover, bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce the heat to medium and simmer until the lentils are almost tender, about 30 minutes. 

2. Continue cooking the lentils while you put the oil and butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. When the butter melts, add the cumin seeds, cinnamon stick, and cloves, and cook, shaking the pan occasionally, for 2 to 3 minutes. Add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft, about 10 minutes. Add the cayenne and 1 cup water; bring to a boil over medium-high heat and simmer for 1 minute, then turn off the heat.

3. When the lentils are fully tender, partially purée them with an immersion blender (or leave them whole if you prefer). Stir the onion mixture into the lentils along with the remaining tomatoes and the cilantro. Season liberally with salt and pepper. Simmer for 5 minutes, then turn off the heat and stir in the lemon juice. Taste and adjust the seasoning, and serve hot or warm over basmati rice, if desired. (Store leftover dal in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to a week.)


Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Students Aren’t Going to College Football Games as Much Anymore

And schools are getting worried.

Two Damn Good, Very Different Movies About Soldiers Returning From War

The XX Factor

Lifetime Didn’t Think the Steubenville Rape Case Was Dramatic Enough

So they added a little self-immolation.


Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem

Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 

Why a Sketch of Chelsea Manning Is Stirring Up Controversy

How Worried Should Poland, the Baltic States, and Georgia Be About a Russian Invasion?

Trending News Channel
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM Watch Flashes of Lightning Created in a Lab  
  News & Politics
Sept. 20 2014 11:13 AM -30-
Business Insider
Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
Sept. 20 2014 7:27 AM How Do Plants Grow Aboard the International Space Station?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
Brow Beat
Sept. 20 2014 3:21 PM “The More You Know (About Black People)” Uses Very Funny PSAs to Condemn Black Stereotypes
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 21 2014 8:00 AM An Astronaut’s Guided Video Tour of Earth
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.