Does anyone else intermittently get cravings for legumes? Maybe I’m just a weirdo (we all knew that), but woahhh are they good.
Toor dal (split pigeon peas) is one of the most popular Indian dals to serve at home. At restaurant buffets you might get lucky and find yourself some toor dal, but what I’ve seen more often is dal makhani which is typically a combo of urad dal (black lentils) and rajma (kidney beans) in a creamy curry sauce. Toor dal is typically a more healthy and “rustic” dish, and one that evokes the feelings of the comforts of home.
(Also- for anyone who is unfamiliar, or who hasn’t already deciphered this from context clues, dal is just the Hindi word for a vegetarian stew made with lentils or beans).
So if you are a bean lover, rejoice. And if you haven’t yet discovered the vast world of Indian recipes, let this be your starting point.One thing I’ve discovered about Indian cooking, is that there is no one “right” way to flavor each curry dish. Each family has their own spice blends that they prefer. Thus each toor dal you have is going to be slightly different. But in my research about toor dal, one spice combo seems pretty universal and that is using a combo of whole mustard seeds and whole jeera (cumin) seeds. The rest is pretty much up for interpretation.
My Indian “culinary training” is a combo of eating Dave’s mom’s amazing Indian cooking, eating out at Indian restaurants as often as humanly possibly, and studying in great detail numerous Indian home cooks and chefs on You Tube. Yes, I am aware that I spend my time in very strange and unique ways…
However, in my experience as well as you-tube-comment-reading-black-hole moments, what I’ve found is that a lot of non-Indians are somewhat intimidated by the different spices and ingredients you can use in Indian cooking. I remember my first foray into Indian cooking and was dismayed at all the different terms and names for ingredients and it was enough to make me want to give up.But persist I did. And I want you to as well. So let’s talk spices. I’m going to just go through and give you a summary of what I have in the Indian section of my spice cupboard. I actually use all of these spices with decent regularity so if you are considering a spice collection, I’d take this list to heart. Especially 1-10.
First and foremost: You will need a dedicated spice grinder. It doesn’t have to be fancy- I just use a cheapo coffee grinder (please don’t use your regular coffee grinder for this job, unless you want some really funky food and drink). But seriously – once you go to the Indian grocer and realize how much cheaper you can acquire whole spices there vs. the ground stuff you can find at your local store you are going to want to grind everything yourself.
Essential Indian Spices for the Home Cook:
- Cumin (whole and ground) – a warm, earthy, musty flavor. I think most of us are probably familiar with cumin.
- Coriander (whole and ground) – a bright lemony flavor. The seeds are pale and round. I cook with a heck of a lot of coriander and find it a very versatile ingredient and I’m rarely regretful adding that extra teaspoon or 2…
- Turmeric powder – adds a bright yellow color to dishes and a bitter, chalky flavor (but used in combo with different spices is excellent, so don’t worry your food won’t taste like chalk).
- Green cardamom (whole and ground) – floral and herbal taste. It is used in both savory and sweet Indian cooking. Can be very bitter if you bite into it whole.
- Black cardamom (whole) – black cardamom gives a smoky flavor and is very different tasting from green cardamom. Some people suggest substituting smoked paprika if you don’t have access to black cardamom, but I don’t think it tastes as good.
- Kashmiri Chili Powder (I tend to buy medium or mild varieties) – Kashmiri is considered the highest quality chili powder and lends a beautiful red coloring to many dishes.
- Mustard seeds (whole) – yellow seeds are milder than black seeds.
- Cinnamon (whole) – I’m assuming we all know what cinnamon tastes like.
- Cloves (whole) – (See previous description).
- Garam Masala- this is the only spice blend that I buy, but honestly it’s really not that big of a deal to prepare on your own. Garam masala is typically referring to a ground spice blend of cumin, coriander, cardamom, cinnamon, and cloves. These spices need to be roasted, cooled, and then ground. It’s not true garam masala if the spices haven’t been toasted. Then you can add this to your recipes as indicated.
- Some recipes do call for whole garam masala, which would be a combination of the aforementioned spices, toasted, whole and not ground. Using whole garam masala is similar to using “aromatics” in western cooking; i.e. you wouldn’t eat the entire herb sprig, but you use it to infuse the essence throughout the dish as it slow cooks.
Less essential Indian Spices for the Home Cook, but Also Delicious:
- Dried Kasuri Methi Leaves – Also known as Fenugreek, this is an herb that can be used both fresh or dried, but will add a subtle flavor that you might be able to pick out from many curries at Indian restaurants.
- Methi seeds (whole) – Also known as Fenugreek seeds- this spice adds a subtle and sweetness to many dishes- but will be very bitter if you do not roast the seeds prior to using them. I use this in my favorite Chicken Tikka Masala recipe.
- Amchoor Powder – dried mango powder that adds a tangy flavor to many dishes. You can substitute lemon juice in recipes, but it won’t taste exactly the same. I really like amchoor powder, but I do consider it optional.
- Asafoetida/ Hing – I actually refuse to keep this ingredient in my house as the smell gives me a severe headache and makes my kitchen smell awful, but if you are really committed to authenticity you might want to consider this ingredient. It has a very pungent, garlicky flavor, and is more common in select regions and classes of India where they do not use onion or garlic in their cooking. I’ve found that if a recipe includes this, you can just up the amount of garlic a little bit and you won’t miss it. Fun facts: it’s also referred to as Devil’s Dung and apparently is also an anti-flatulent.
Fresh Ingredients to have on hand:
- Onions – Almost every Indian curry starts with onions. I think most Indian chefs use red onions, but it really doesn’t matter.
- Garlic – most Indian dishes also include garlic paste. You can make your own paste by using the flat of your chef’s knife and mashing it onto the cutting board until it forms a paste, or you can use a microplane grater (this is my preferred method). Also Indian stores sell pre-grated garlic paste if you don’t want to put for the the effort to DIY it.
- Ginger- same instructions as for garlic- it’s almost always used as a paste.
- Cilantro, also known as coriander – a staple herb in Indian cooking. This is a very controversial herb- I love it in small amounts; my mom hates it.
- Green chiles- you can acquire the authentic ones at the Indian store as well, but in a pinch you can substitute with jalepeno or serrano chiles. You can also typically omit green chile from any recipe without any affect to the flavor of the dish. It’s really just for adding heat.So if I didn’t scare you off yet with this huge list of ingredients, I’d like to bring us back to the reason why we are here: Toor dal. I am convinced that anyone can make this dish successfully with very little knowledge of Indian cooking, but I hope that my lists have been marginally helpful, especially if you would like to make many Indian meals in the future.
Toor dal is a great place to start your Indian food cooking journey, because it is a relatively forgiving dish if you don’t have a lot of experience. It’s customizable as well- I like my dal on the thin side- more like a soup than a stew. However, you can easily add less water to this recipe if you prefer your dal on the thicker side. I just ate mine plain, but you definitely should serve this however you prefer- rice or chapati are traditional accompaniments.
I hope you enjoy this one as much as I did!
- 2 cups uncooked toor dal or 4 cups cooked; Toor dal, aka Split Pigeon Peas, is available online here.
- 2 tablespoons ghee
- 2 teaspoons cumin seeds
- 1 ½ teaspoons yellow mustard seeds
- 1 medium onion diced
- 1 tablespoon garlic paste or about 1 inch ginger, grated on microplane grater
- 1 tablespoon ginger paste or about 2 large garlic cloves, grated on microplane grater
- ¾ teaspoon turmeric powder
- 1 teaspoon garam masala powder
- 1 teaspoon red chili powder
- ½ teaspoon cumin powder
- 1 roma tomato finely diced (about 1/3 cup)
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- ¼ cup chopped cilantro plus additional for garnishing
- Salt to taste (I used about 1 teaspoon)
- Start by rinsing dal in a colander, swirling often with your hands to ensure it is fully rinsed.
- Place rinsed dal in a bowl with plenty of water to soak for at least 1 hour.
- In a large saucepan add soaked dal and 6 cups of water. Boil uncovered for 30-40 minutes, or until dal is very mushy.
- Drain any excess water. Set aside. You should have about 4 cups of cooked dal.
- In a large saucepan or wok, heat the ghee over medium heat. Add cumin seeds and mustard seeds. Saute until seeds begin to pop and the mustard seeds have turned a deep brown color.
- Add onions and a pinch of salt and saute until the onions are lightly browned and softened.
- Next add the ginger and garlic pastes. Saute briefly- just about 30 seconds to 1 minute.
- Add remaining spices- turmeric, garam masala powder, red chili powder, and cumin powder. Saute for about 30 seconds.
- Then add diced tomato and ½ cup water. Cook down until water evaporates and the oil begins to separate from the mixture. Tomato should be very soft. (Takes about 6-7 minutes).
- Next, stir in the cooked dal. Season mixture generously with salt to taste. Stir in lemon juice.
- I added about 2 cups of additional water at this stage to thin out the dal. Feel free to add more or less water to your desired consistency.
- Cover and simmer for 15-20 minutes, stirring intermittently to prevent sticking, to allow flavors to come together.
- Lastly, stir in chopped cilantro. Add additional cilantro leaves to garnish bowls of dal.