Dal is deeply comforting. It deserves a place next to our favourite comfort foods – Somehow eating a bowl of the bubbling, unctuous yellow dish is warming for the soul. Its bobbly surface is glossy and inviting, ripe for dunking chapati or naan. Maybe it’s the mixture of nourishing split peas and spices or maybe it’s the ease with which it is eaten.
The masala is what gives dal its heart. A mixture that varies from house to house across India I’m sure, it normally starts off with the cornerstones of Indian cookery – onion, ginger, chilli and garlic – to which spices are added giving depth and warmth to the dal.
The masala is mixed into the cooked split peas and the lot stirred together – indeed whisked to add a certain smoothness. At this point I suppose you could add coconut milk for some extra richness, but this would be gilding the lily, for dal is also easy on the tummy as long as one doesn’t over-eat.
Satisfying and nourishing and child’s play to boot, this dish is best described as a warm hug, perfect for a rainy day. This recipe is based on one that comes from the charming Cooking with my Indian Mother-in-law, with the addition of some spinach for a little contrast and a nod towards virtuous eating.
Despite the name of the recipe, it tastes far from basic. Don’t be put off by the long list of ingredients – most of them will probably be in your store cupboard.
Ingredients (serves 4 with rice)
• 175g yellow split peas
• 50g red split peas
• 4 green finger chillies
• 1 fat clove garlic
• A thumb size piece of ginger
• 1 ½ tsp salt
• 2 tomatoes
• 1 tbs groundnut or other flavourless oil
• ½ tsp mustard seeds
• 1 small onion, finely chopped
• ½ tbs butter
• ½ tsp dhana jiru (see instructions)
• ¼ tsp turmeric
• ½ tbs finely chopped coriander stems
• Lemon or lime juice to taste
• A small bunch of coriander leaves, roughly chopped
• 2 handfuls of spinach
Make the dhana jiru – toast a quarter of a tsp cumin seeds and the same of coriander seeds until fragrant. Pound in a pestle and mortar to a powder.
Wash the peas in water until it gets clear. Drain and put in a large pot with 2 litres of water and bring to the boil without a lid. Skim the scum that rises and cook for around 40 minutes or until the dal is soft.
While this is cooking, make the masala – top and tail two of the chillies and cut into short lengths. Add to a small blender with the garlic, ginger and salt and tomatoes.
Heat the oil in a frying pan and add the mustard seeds and onion. Fry until lightly golden. Add the butter and when melted add the spices. Cook for a few minutes before adding the tomato mixture and coriander stems. Increase the heat and simmer for ten to fifteen minutes.
When the dal is cooked, use a whisk to beat it until as smooth as possible. Add the masala and the remaining two chillies, left whole. Bring to the boil and simmer for ten minutes until quite thick – traditionally it should be thin but it’s much nicer when like this.
Taste and season with lime or lemon juice and salt until the balance is right. Scatter over the coriander leaves and serve with rice and chapatti, if desired.