Growing up in a Tamil home, dal meant either tur dal or moong dal. Chana dal was used for certain tadkas (tempering) which needed an extra crunch, such as in lemon rice, and to prepare paruppu vadai (dal vada) or adai (mixed lentil dosa). Amma would regularly make delicious whole masoor curry to go with rotis for dinner, but I have rarely seen masoor dal used at home.
Split and skinned whole masoor, also called pink lentils, is a much loved dal in Bengali cooking.
Pink lentils cook to a powdery textured dal with a mild fragrance, losing their salmon pink colour and turning a pale yellow. The highlight of masoor dal is that it is the quickest-cooking dal. God forbid, you are ever stuck somewhere without a pressure cooker (this will give any dal-rice-loving desi a panic attack), masoor dal will save you. it doesn’t need soaking and cooks in a stovetop pan in around 20 minutes, even quicker if you soak it for half an hour.
This is my go-to dal when I want to add some extra protein, fibre and heft to vegetable soups. It rounds off the sharp tanginess of naati (desi) tomatoes beautifully in a tomato shorba, or soup, giving the soup a creamy texture. On my trip to Jordan in 2016, we were signed up for a Jordanian cooking class at a restaurant called Petra’s Kitchen. One of these recipes is now a regular in my kitchen. Shourbat Adas, which translates to soup lentils in Arabic, is a hearty vegan soup made with masoor dal and vegetables. Served with a crusty bread or just a salad on the side, it makes for a wholesome meal.
One of the best ways to make everyday sabzis like cabbage, bell pepper, bottle gourd or bitter gourd more nutritious is to add some soaked masoor dal, moong dal or chana dal and let it cook along with the vegetables. The dals should retain their texture in these sabzis. This is especially good for diabetics to increase the fibre and protein in the meal, leading to a more gradual increase in blood sugar after the meal. Adding lightly cooked or just soaked dals like masoor and moong to salads makes them more filling. Lentil-based salads can also be prepared the previous night and carried in a lunch box.
This dal is not just a good companion to veggies in soups, sabzis and salads, but also to meat. Masoor dal is the star ingredient in a Hyderabadi dalcha I read about in Asma Khan’s book Asma’s Indian Kitchen. This is a tangy meat and lentils dish, in which the dal strategically stretches a cheap cut of meat to serve a bigger family for less.
You can, of course, use masoor dal by itself to make a variety of dal dishes, by just varying the fat used for the tadka, spices and aromatics. One of the variations I love is Uttar Pradesh-style masoor dal, a recipe Camellia Panjabi shares in her 1995 book, The Great Curries Of India. Here, masoor dal is cooked with pumpkin, onions, tomatoes, ginger, garlic, green chillies and ground spices. Tamarind water and lime juice are added for tanginess and a final tadka of sliced garlic fried in butter.
1 cup masoor dal
2 tbsp olive oil
4 cloves garlic
1 large onion
4 thin stalks of celery with leaves
1 medium carrot
1 vegetable stock cube
Half tsp ground turmeric
1 tsp ground cumin
2 tsp ground coriander
One-and-a-half tsp salt
Wash the masoor dal and soak for 30 minutes in a bowl of water. Slice the garlic and onions. Finely chop the celery stalk and leaves. Peel and slice the carrot. In a large pot, heat the olive oil. Add the chopped garlic, onion, celery and carrot. Fry on a medium flame for four-five minutes until the onion has softened somewhat. Add the soaked and drained dal, stock cube and 750ml water.
Bring to a boil on a high flame. Reduce the flame and simmer for 30 minutes until the dal and vegetables are well cooked. In the last stages of cooking, add the ground spices and salt. Combine well. Using an immersion blender, process the contents of the pan to a thick soup. Add some boiling hot water to adjust the consistency if required.
Divide into four large bowls. Garnish with a squeeze of lime juice.
Note: Other vegetables like diced pumpkin or potatoes can also be added to the soup. Vegetable stock can be used instead of water, in which case the stock cube can be avoided.
Cabbage Masoor Sabzi
Half cup masoor dal
3 cups finely chopped cabbage
1 large green capsicum
2 green chillies
2 tbsp mustard oil (or any other oil)
Half tsp black mustard seeds
Half tsp cumin seeds
1 sprig curry leaves
2 tsp ground coriander
Half to 1 tsp salt
Wash and soak the masoor dal in a bowl of water for 30 minutes. Deseed and finely chop the capsicum. Slit the green chillies. Heat mustard oil in a large pan. Fry the mustard and cumin seeds. Once the mustard seeds splutter, add the curry leaves and slit green chillies.Fry for 30 seconds.
Drain the soaked masoor dal. Add the chopped vegetables and the masoor dal. Sprinkle ground coriander and toss everything together. Cover and cook over a low flame for 15 minutes until the dal is cooked but retains its shape. Season with salt and combine well.
Serve hot with rotis.
Double Tested is a fortnightly column on vegetarian cooking, highlighting a single ingredient prepared two ways. Nandita Iyer is the author of the newly released book This Handmade Life—7 Skills To Enhance And Transform Your Everyday Life. @saffrontrail