Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Dhal: Excellent Indian Lentils

My introduction to serious dhal dishes occured while living in Malaysia, where many varieties were staples in the diverse Indian communities. Lentils, or dhal in Hindi (parapu in the prevailing Tamil of the largest Indian community in Malaysia), are the major protein source for hundreds of millions of Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, and Nepalis, rich and poor, vegetarian and non-vegetarian. Paired with rice or whole wheat chapatis, dhal forms the basis of food and nutrition for a fifth of the world's population.

These humble legumes, both whole seeds and split varieties, are transformed by spices, butter or oil, onions and occasionally vegetables into astoundingly satisfying, even elegant, dishes. Virtually no serious Indian meal lacks dhal in one form or another.

My favorite of the dhals I know how to make is the north Indian stew of "channa," which is very similar to yellow split peas. I learned this from a warm, slightly rotund Sikh lady, Mrs. Majumder Singh, whose class I took In Kuala Lumpur. Her face carried a happy, almost lascivious, smile as she dolloped extra globs of clarified butter into the bubbling mixture. She knew what she was doing. It was alchemy, turning dull, dry legumes into lusciousness. Her dhal made you sigh with joy.

At good Indian restaurants (and, blessedly, we have them in Atlanta) I typically get dhal makani, a slow-cooked dish of black dhal and red beans with fresh ginger and cream, that I wouldn't usually make at home. But when I cook, my dish is what I'm describing, a Punjabi yellow dhal you never tire of.

Sprinkled with coarsely chopped cilantro, it goes with salted Basmati rice and plain yogurt. On the side, I like a little hot Indian pickle, bottled and imported, an achar.

Yellow split peas are sold at supermarkets. Channa dhal is at Indian and some natural foods stores. Spices are cheapest at Indian and natural food stores. Mexican stores also carry some herbs and spices cheaply.

Dhal patterned after Mrs. Majumder Singh's

1 pound yellow split peas (supermarkets) or channa dhal (natural food and Indian groceries)
Water to cover by 3 inches in pot
3 tablespoons butter
1 large onion, divided
1 jalapeƱo, minced, or 1/2 teaspoon cayenne
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons ground turmeric
2 tablespoons canola oil
1 teaspoon small black mustard seeds
2 teaspoons whole cumin seeds
1/2 cup cilantro, leaves coarsely chopped
1-1/2 teaspoons salt, plus to taste

Rinse and drain split peas or lentils. Place in pot with water to cover by 3 inches. Bring to boil, and skim off foam. Add butter, half the onion, diced, jalapeno, ground cumin, and turmeric. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until peas begin to break down, 20 to 40 minutes, depending on the legume used. Add water to make into a soupy mixture.

Meanwhile, thinly slice other half onion lengthwise. Heat il in heavy pan. Add mustard seeds, and stir and fry until they begin to pop. Add cumin seeds, and after they sizzle 10 seconds, add sliced onions. Fry gently until onion begins to brown. Stir in cilantro and remove from heat.

When peas are becoming soupy, add salt, plus fried onion-cilantro mixture. Simmer 1 minute and remove from heat. Taste, and add salt as needed.


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