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Know your tur dal from your chana dal

Mistaking tur dal and chana dal for each other is a rite of passage for every Indian cook. Learn to tell them apart

Everyday sambar (left) and Gujarati puran poli. (Photos: Nandita Iyer)
Everyday sambar (left) and Gujarati puran poli. (Photos: Nandita Iyer)

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How lyrical are the words thuvarika and aadhaki. These are names for arhar or tur dal from Charaka and early Buddhist literature, respectively. When dal is used without a qualifier, it is almost always assumed that we are referring to tur dal.

Mistaking tur dal and chana dal for each other is a rite of passage for every Indian cook. Almost all of us have at some point hurriedly picked the wrong packet from the supermarket or used the wrong dal from a jar. The key differentiator is that chana dal is rounder and tur dal, flatter and smaller in size. You will note the differences if you see them side by side.

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A lot of my north Indian friends shudder at the thought of cooking tur (called arhar in the northern parts) dal in the pressure cooker. Most north Indian arhar dal dishes retain the texture of dal. It is not bashed up to a purée, as is mandatory in south Indian cooking, so using the pressure cooker would need precise knowledge of when to turn off the cooker to have the dal cooked but not mushy. Being a conscientious LPG- saving girl, I don’t cook tur dal on the stovetop. Maybe just once.

This was in 2005, when I moved to the US. Instant Pot was not a thing then.

The ignorant cook in me did not think of carrying along a pressure cooker. I was shocked to note that even after soaking the tur dal, it took infinitely long to cook on the stovetop (blame it on old stock in the Indian store?). I decided that until I found someone to lug a cooker for me, it was only going to be moong dal or masoor dal, which are more forgiving to a pressure cooker-less existence.

A kind friend returning to the US from India got us a 2-litre Hawkins pressure cooker. We could again have tur dal, and, much to our relief, normal-tasting sambar.

Everyday Sambar
Serves 6-8

1 cup tur dal (soaked for 30 minutes)
1 tbsp packed tamarind flakes*
250g bhindi (okra)
2 tsp oil
Half tsp mustard seeds
Quarter tsp fenugreek seeds
Half tsp turmeric powder
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp sambar powder (depends on how spicy this is)
Final tempering (optional)
1 tbsp gingelly oil
A sprig of curry leaves
1-2 dried red chillies
A pinch of asafoetida

Drain the soaked tur dal and pressure- cook with two cups of water for 10 minutes. (After full pressure or one whistle, keep the flame on the lowest setting for 10 minutes). Once the cooker cools, remove the dal and mash it well with a whisk.

Soak the tamarind flakes in one cup boiling-hot water for 15 minutes. Squeeze the pulp into the water and discard the residual flakes.

To prepare the bhindi, slice off the top and tail and cut it into one- to two-inch pieces.

In a heavy-bottomed pan, heat 2 tsp oil. Fry mustard and fenugreek seeds for a few seconds. Once the mustard seeds splutter, add the chopped bhindi and fry on a medium-high flame for one-two minutes.

To this, add the tamarind water, turmeric powder and salt. Let this come to a boil. Simmer for six-seven minutes or until the bhindi is cooked.

Make a slurry of sambar powder in 2-3 tbsp of water and add it to the simmering mixture in the pan. Simmer for another one-two minutes.

Mix in the cooked dal and stir to combine. Adjust the seasoning and consistency as per preference.

For the final tempering, heat the oil in a small pan. Add the curry leaves, red chillies and asafoetida. Fry for a few seconds, transfer it over the sambar and cover it with a lid immediately.

Serve hot with rice.

*Can use 1 tsp tamarind purée or half tsp tamarind concentrate instead.

Gujarati Puran Poli
Makes 10

(Gujarati puran poli uses tur dal for the sweet filling while the Maharashtrian puran poli uses chana dal.)

1 cup tur dal (soaked for one hour)
One and a quarter cups grated jaggery or jaggery powder
Half tsp green cardamom powder
Half tsp grated nutmeg (optional)
1 tsp ghee
2 cups atta (wheat flour)
A pinch of salt
2 tsp oil
Ghee to cook

Pressure-cook the drained tur dal with one-and-a-half cups water for six minutes. (After full pressure or one whistle, keep the flame on the lowest setting for six-seven minutes.) Open the cooker when cool and mash the cooked dal to a smooth purée using a potato masher.

Add jaggery to the mashed dal. On a low flame, keep cooking this mixture with constant stirring until the jaggery melts and the mixture thickens (six-eight minutes). Add cardamom powder and grated nutmeg. Mix well and transfer to a plate greased with ghee. Keep the puran aside to cool thoroughly. Divide into 10 portions and roll into balls.

Mix oil and salt into the atta and make a dough using enough water to get the consistency of chapati dough. Keep it covered for half an hour.

Divide into 10 portions and roll into balls.

Roll out each ball into a three-inch circle. Place a ball of puran in the centre. Bring the edges of the dough towards the top of the puran, covering it completely. Flatten it to a thick disc so that the filling spreads uniformly. Using a bit of flour for dusting, roll this out into thick rotis, such that the stuffing does not spill out. Dust off the excess flour.

Cook both sides on a hot tava (griddle) until golden spots appear, brushing some ghee once it is cooked. Repeat with the remaining dough and filling. Serve hot with some melted ghee.

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 on Twitter and Instagram

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