Thank goodness we were introduced early on to the fabulous Bombay Cafe on Pico Boulevard when we arrived in LA.
Here is an article by Neela who made up a formidable team with David Chaparro: they both owned that wonderful Indian restaurant, and ran it with a great deal of flair and love. We always ate well when they cooked, and I felt so lucky to become friends with them. They sold Bombay Cafe much to the city’s great despair. David went on to other creative ventures, and Neela moved to the Napa Valley where she opened her wonderful place: Neela’s. Dad and I had the pleasure of eating there on a quick visit to Nothern CA. She is a truly wonderful cook. While she prepared to open this place, I spent many fun hours with David in our kitchen in Santa Monica testing dessert recipes that she might possibly like to use at her new establishment.
I thought your Vegan friends at Grouse would enjoy knowing more about legumes, courtesy of Ms. Paniz.
Time to cook dal, Izzy!
Playing With Dals
No Indian meal can be considered complete without a leguminous dish. Neela Paniz sorts through the kaleidoscopic variety of lentils and beans available to subcontinental cooks.
On one of my weekly jaunts to an Indian grocery store in Fairfield, California, about a 20 minute ride from my restaurant Neela’s in downtown Napa, I was once again reminded of the number of dals available for sale. The shelves were packed with a plethora of legumes, lentils, and beans, displaying a variety of colors and sizes. Dal is the Indian word for pulses or lentils, as well as the generic word for the different ways the pulses are cooked into a soup or stew-like dish.
Pulses, or the seeds of leguminous pods, date back nearly 5,000 years, mostly to the area around the Ravi River in the northern Indian province of Punjab. A pulse is an annual leguminous crop yielding from one to 12 grains or seeds of variable size, shape, and color within a pod. Evidence of dried peas has been found in Egyptian pyramids and even in ancient Switzerland. Dal is packed with nutrition, and when served withchawal (rice) and/or rotis (whole wheat flatbreads), the combination rms a complete protein. Pulses are not only used for human consumption but their pods and foliage are used as animal feed, due to their high protein and essential amino acid content.
To an Indian, dal represents not just the legume, but also the dish derived from cooking the pulses. Dal is also common to Pakistan, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. The preparation of dal is determined not only by region but also by the pulse or legume itself. Pulses are available either hulled or with skins on, resulting in different textured dishes. While I was growing up in India, dal was a daily staple. My mother and our cook would decide which dal to cook for that day; there were so many options and, essential as it was, you didn’t serve the same dal over and over again. Today, many households in India prepare dal in a pressure cooker, especially those legumes that require a longer cooking time. Beans, though not prepared as dal, sometimes replace it at a meal. The denotation for large seeds, they can include the small chickpea known as kabuli chana; the red kidney bean rajma; the black-skinned chickpea kala chanas; the green-skinned chickpea hara chana; and the black-eyed pea lobia.
One of my favorite dals was prepared by Mercin, my childhood maid. She came from the southern city of Mangalore and used the pink lentils known as masoor dal to cook the most delicious lemony soup. Occasionally, she would add cubes of unripe green mangoes or another fruit that was similar in shape and flavor to star fruit, yet smaller. This was the first dal I served to my husband, Franklin, and to this date, it remains his favorite, too.
I’ve been in the restaurant business for almost 35 years and have never tired of cooking dal, not with the number of dals available, the wealth of regional dal recipes, and dals’ adaptability to other cuisines—the French have their green lentilles du Puy, northern Italians serve them with cotechino or zampone at New Year’s, and so forth. Mario Batali has a recipe for broad pasta with lentils called sagnatiellie lenticchie. Emeril Lagasse makes a soup with lentils and ham hock; Giacomino Drago of Il Pastaio in Beverly Hills, California, serves a lentil salad with shrimp and arugula; and Akasha Richmond of Akasha in Culver City, California, serves a dish called Punjabi mung beans and rice, a take on Indian flavors that she’s been cooking for many years. Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken served a poona pancake, similar to a dosa, in their original restaurant City, and now Feniger lists a Korean mung bean pancake on the menu of her restaurant Street in Los Angeles. She also offers a version of the Indian street food favorite pani puri, a crisp puffed cracker stuffed with sprouted mung beans and chutneys with mint/tamarind scented water.
Here are some simple steps for preparing dal. Pick through the dried lentils for any foreign objects, such as pebbles, small sticks, etc., and then soak them in water, from 20 minutes to as long as overnight, depending on the variety of dal used. As I learned to cook, I was taught to measure the amount of water needed to cook them using the two-knuckle method (up to two knuckles of water above the top of the lentils) or approximately two inches. However, it’s best to start with less water than needed, as more hot water can always be added. Also, cook the lentils in their soaking water to retain flavors and proteins. Bring the pot of lentils to a full boil and skim off the foam that arises. Add salt and any other seasonings, such as turmeric and cayenne, or aromatics as per the recipe. Once the dal has “exploded,” or cooked through, again following the recipe, the legumes can be cooked further or removed from the fire to await further seasoning.
The final step, the tadka, also known as the baghar or chaunk, consists of tempering spices, mostly cumin or mustard seeds, any other aromatics, such as onions, garlic, ginger, chiles, tomatoes, and kari leaves in ghee (clarified butter), and then adding them to the cooked dal. The pot should be covered right after adding the tadka to entrap the spices’ essences in the dal. There are exceptions to the rule, of course, where the tadkais added while the dal is still cooking. Ayurveda, an ancient form of holistic medicine, advocates the addition of asafetida to the tadka. Asafetida, a gum resin native to Afghanistan but used widely in India and sold in solid form or ground, cut with wheat flour, alleviates the gassy effects caused by legumes and emulates the flavor of garlic and onions, a must with almost all dal recipes.
Although there are numerous dals available in India, these are the more common lentils used in subcontinental cooking.
Masoor dal: These pink skinless lentils, which turn yellow when cooked, are the lightest in texture and easiest to digest. Sometimes referred to as Turkish lentils. Masoor cooks very quickly, requiring very little, if any, soaking. Many recipes for masoor call for it to be cooked to the point of complete disintegration, creating almost a smooth texture. I cook masoor only until it “explodes,” so it retains some shape and texture. Flavoring masoor with an acid such as lemon juice or tomatoes enhances its flavor.
Saabut masoor dal: This is masoor with its brown skin on. Used in heartier dishes, it maintains its shape even after its core has softened. Saabut should be soaked for 30 to 40 minutes and cooked for upwards of an hour. A tadka of sautéed onions, tomatoes, green chiles, ginger, garlic, and sizzling cumin seeds lends aromatic heft to the finished dal. Though not traditional, it can also be flavored with sambar powder, a southern Indian spice mixture.
Toor dal: Also known as pigeon pea, toor is called arhar dal in some parts of India. Evidence of its cultivation dating back 3,500 years has been found in the northeastern and southern states of India. Today, this fast-growing lentil is cultivated throughout the country. Toor dal is used in southern India’s popular sambar dal, sometimes incorporating the young green lentil pods as one of the vegetables in the dish. It’s most often served with dosas, the lentil and rice crêpes. Tamarind provides the dish an acidic element; roasted coconut, kari leaves, cumin seeds, and mustard seeds complete the seasoning. Another southern dish, the toor-based tomato/pepper soup called rasam, often gets served with sambar in the same meal.
Cooks from the western state of Gujerat turn toor into thin soupy gujju dal, highly seasoned with chiles, tomatoes, whole spices like cinnamon and cloves, kari leaves, and a touch of gur, or jaggery (Indian unrefined sugar). Gujeratis will often have more than one style of dal during a meal. By contrast, in the central regions of India, toor dal becomes a thick soup with a simple tadka of crisp cumin seeds, red chile powder, and amchur (dried green mango powder).
Sindhis, from the Indus Valley, cook a small amount of the toor dal in a large quantity of water to create a lentil broth that’s strained and then thickened with besan, a flour derived from channa dal, as the base of a vegetable curry consumed as a main dish along with rice. The discarded toor dal mush is sometimes seasoned with fried onions, tomatoes, chiles, and spices to eat with bread.
Moong dal: This commonly cultivated and consumed green mung bean comes whole or split. With the hull removed, it’s yellow. Archeological evidence shows it was in use in central India as far back as 1500 B.C. Mung beans have a creamy consistency and are easy to digest, logically making them the first dal served to infants. The addition of tomatoes adds acidic balance and sweetness for a more palatable dish.
Once, in the desert state of Rajasthan, I was invited to share a meal with a family that dwelled in a mud hut. The lady of the house had waited for us to bring her bottled water to use in the preparation of our lunch, as she knew she was feeding “foreigners.” She cooked her yellow moong dal until creamy, then added the one tomato she had, which she diced and fried in the tadka along with cumin seeds and a whole spoonful of crushed red chiles.
Although whole green moong cooks into a thick creamy dal, I prefer a little body on the legume, adding dark brown fried onions and garlic to create a very hearty dish. I also use it to prepare kichri, a rice/legume dish similar to a porridge or risotto. When sprouted, moong dal becomes part of pani puri, the popular street food served throughout India.
Chana dal: This small dry unroasted split and hulled chickpea comes from the blackchana variety. Used to make a hearty dal, it’s a favorite with Punjabis, Sindhis, and Bengalis of northern India. Often gourd or squash is added to its preparation. It has a low glycemic index, making it a practical dal for diabetics. The roasted or fried and spiced hulled chana makes up part of a trail mix-type snack called chiwra.
Urad dal: This whole black lentil, most common in the northern state of Punjab, is also known as urad sabut; the hulled bean is called urad dhuli. You can sometimes find the split version too. To add to the confusion, many Indian restaurants call it makhani dal because traditionally the creamy mushy dish is topped with a pat of makhan (butter). Whole urad should be soaked overnight, as it takes a long time to break down. Oftentimes, urad dal is cooked with a small proportion of rajma or chana dal. Hulled or white urad lentils are used in the south in the preparation of dosas and vadas (lentil dumplings).
There are other dals, of course, among them the red chori, a small bean similar in shape to the red kidney bean, and moth, similar in shape and texture to moong bean but brown in color.
One of my fondest memories is of a holiday I took with my parents to the Kullu Valley in the northeast region of India. From there, we took a day excursion to the border area of Leh in the Ladakh region. At that time, there was a huge Indian military presence in the region and we were invited to join the jawans, or foot soldiers, to partake in their meal of dal and roti. If memory serves me right, this chana dal was flavored with white radishes, potatoes, and cauliflower, along with the usual spices and aromatics. It truly dignified the phrase “join us for dal roti,” and it’s now on my menu asjawans’ pahari dal for the soldiers and the mountainous region where they were stationed.
Another is from when I opened Chutneys, an Indian fast food restaurant, in Los Angeles in 1985. One of my late night customers was David Chaparro, an established caterer at that time. I boasted to him that I could cook a different preparation of dal daily for a whole month. And I did! We became friends and eventually business partners in the Bombay Cafe, a partnership that lasted 20 years. I still cook a different dal for him whenever he visits me in Napa, evidence that nutritious dals also nurture lasting relationships!