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.
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.)