July 22, 2021
Excerpted with permission from The Flavor Equation: The Science of Great Cooking Explained + More Than 100 Essential Recipes (Chronicle Books, 2020) by Nik Sharma. Text and photographs copyright © 2020 by Nik Sharma.
In India, the word dal is an all-encompassing term that includes not only the dish but also lentils and some beans. Dal is a staple in many Indian homes across the world; it’s easy to make, comforting, and a great source of protein. One of the things I love about dal is that regardless of the lentil or bean you cook it with, it’s a blank slate for flavor. You can use my simple flavor guide to build and layer flavors into your own dal recipes at home; feel free to tweak it and make your own combinations of flavors. Technically, urad dal is not a lentil but the bean of the Vigna mungo plant, sometimes sold as black gram. You will need to plan a day in advance to soak the beans.
Serves 4 to 6
1 cup (200 g) whole urad beans with skin
1/2 cup (60 g) kidney beans (optional)
1/8 tsp baking soda
1 medium white onion (9 1/4 oz or 260 g)
6 garlic cloves, peeled
2 in (5 cm) piece fresh ginger, peeled and cut in half
¼ cup (55 g) ghee or unsalted butter
1 teaspoon garam masala, homemade or store-bought
½ teaspoon ground turmeric
¼ cup (55 g) tomato paste
¼ teaspoon cayenne powder
Fine sea salt
2 tablespoons heavy cream or crème fraîche
2 tablespoons loosely packed chopped cilantro leaves, for garnish (optional)
THE FLAVOR APPROACH
Presoaking provides several benefits. The seeds soften and plump up to almost twice their original volume, and their chemical composition changes. The amount of sugars and starches decreases, which helps with cooking, palatability, and digestion.
Adding baking soda to the beans softens the fiber by acting on the pectin and hemicellulose and drastically reduces the cooking time, from several hours to 30 to 45 minutes. Use filtered water if you live in an area with hard water or it might take a bit longer to cook.
Dal makhani is one of the creamiest dals; it leaves a luxurious texture on your tongue imparted by the cream and butter but also by the soft beans. For an extra-rich flavor, top the dal with a few small dabs of salted butter before you add the garnish.
This comfort food contrasts pleasingly with plain rice or flat bread like paratha, and yogurt or raita on the side provide cool contrast.
This dal is special because it gets it unique fiery flavor from the large amount of garlic and ginger used; if you prefer a milder dose of heat, reduce their quantities by half. The hint of cayenne in this dal adds a third note of heat.
The dhungar method of smoking utilizes the principle of smoking fat and infusing it into food by entrapping the smoke in a small enclosed space.
Pick through the beans and discard any dirt or stones; transfer to a medium bowl and rinse under running tap water, then add enough clean water to cover the beans by 1 in (2.5 cm) and soak overnight.
The next day, discard the water. Place the beans in a medium saucepan or Dutch oven. Add 4 cups (960 ml) of water and the baking soda and bring the contents to a rolling boil over high heat. Lower the heat to a simmer, cover with a lid, and cook for 30 to 45 minutes, until the beans are tender and almost falling apart. Remove from the heat and transfer the beans with the liquid to a large bowl. Rinse the saucepan and wipe it dry.
Quarter the onion and add it with the garlic in a blender. Mince half of the ginger, add it to the blender, and pulse until it forms a smooth paste. If needed, add a bit of the water from the dal to the blender to help things move around.
Melt 2 tablespoons of the ghee in the saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the garam masala and turmeric and cook for 30 to 45 seconds, stirring constantly, until the spices start to release their aroma. Add the tomato paste and sauté for 2 to 3 minutes. Turn the heat to medium-low, stir in the onion mixture, and cook for 10 to 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until most of the liquid has cooked away and the ghee separates from the mixture. Return the cooked beans with their liquid to the saucepan and stir in the cayenne. Season with salt. Increase the heat to high and bring the contents to a boil. Stir occasionally to prevent the beans from sticking to the bottom of the saucepan. Lower the heat to a gentle simmer. Stir in the cream and remove from the heat.
Make the tadka. Melt the remaining ghee in a small, dry saucepan over medium-high heat. Cut the remaining ginger into matchsticks and fry them in the hot ghee for about 1 minute, until the strips just start to turn golden brown. Pour the fried ginger and ghee over the dal. Garnish with the cilantro, if using, and serve hot.
The Dhungar Method
This method is used by some to add a smoky aroma to the dal (and other dishes). Do this after the cream is added to the dal, then proceed with fried ginger step. Don’t forget to switch the stove off while doing this. The density of the dal will keep the onion or bowl afloat, and it won’t sink.
A small, shallow metal bowl or a medium onion, hollowed out in the center
1 to 2 in (2.5 to 5 cm) piece charcoal
1 tablespoon ghee
Place the metal bowl or onion in the center of the dal. Using a pair of tongs, burn the charcoal over a flame until it turns red hot. Carefully place the live charcoal in the center of the bowl and drop the ghee on the hot charcoal. It will start to smoke.
Cover the saucepan with a lid to trap the smoke and let it sit for 5 minutes. Remove the lid, the wire rack (if using), and the bowl or onion and safely discard the charcoal. Proceed with the fried ginger in the recipe.
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