Urad dal is a classic example of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Urad dal with skin is black lentils and the skinned variety, white lentils. When dry-roasted and coarsely ground, it adds an addictive crunchy texture to molagapodi (the lentil and spice powder had with idlis and dosas). When soaked and ground to a paste with water, it is edible slime. Whole urad dal with skin makes the iconic black dal/kaali dal (maa ki dal / dal makhani) while the skinned urad dal makes white idlis.
This lentil is available in four varieties—whole with skin, whole without skin, split with skin and split without skin. I can imagine the confusion it might cause for someone who is new to Indian cooking.
In the preparation of idli and dosa batter, the whole urad without skin is preferred. It plays a vital role in a properly fermented idli or dosa batter. A good way to check for good quality urad dal is to soak a small handful in a cup of water. If the dal is fresh, within half an hour you will see bubbles on the surface of the water. Fresh lentils have more bacteria on the surface than aged ones; these are vital for the fermentation process. In bread-making, the gluten network formed on kneading and shaping the dough makes a web in which the carbon dioxide gets trapped, giving the bread its shape and texture. In the absence of gluten in idli batter, I would think it is the mucilaginous quality of the urad dal paste that gives it the means to capture the carbon dioxide and give it a spongy texture on steaming, without leavening agents.
In Tamil cuisine, whole black urad dal (karuppu ulunthu) is used to make quite a few dishes; idli, porridge (kanji), a sweet dish using jaggery called kali, vada, chutney in combination with shallots, and laddoos, to name some. The recipe shared below is one of a molagapodi that uses black urad dal.
The skinned urad dal is a pantry staple used to prepare the holy tiffin trinity of idli, dosa and vada. The split variety is a basic ingredient used along with mustard seeds and dried red chillies. It is almost as if urad dal is used for every kind of dish but dal itself in Tamil cooking.
In other Indian cuisines however, there are two dal preparations of note made from urad dal. One that needs no introduction is maa ki dal from Punjabi cuisine, with black urad dal being cooked along with a small quantity of rajma (red kidney beans), tomato puree and lots of butter. The other one probably needs an introduction. Biulir dal from West Bengal is unusually flavoured with ginger and fennel seed paste. My friend Anindya Basu, a food blogger and photographer, says that if he has biulir dal and alu posto (potatoes with poppy seed paste), he doesn’t need non-vegetarian food. Now that is a compelling recommendation.
KARUPPU ULUNTHU PODI (BLACK URAD DAL IDLI POWDER)
Makes a jar-full
2 tsp gingelly oil (or coconut oil)
10-12 dried red chillies
1 cup black urad dal (whole or split)
Quarter cup tur dal
Quarter cup chana dal
Quarter cup sesame seeds (mix of black and white)
One-and-a-half tsp salt
Heat the oil in a heavy pan. Fry the dried red chillies on medium flame until they turn a darker shade of red, and crisp. Remove on to a plate. In the same pan, add all the dals. Stir continuously on a medium flame for six-seven minutes until the tur dal and chana dal turn golden brown.
Add the sesame seeds to the dals and stir until they start popping. Remove all the ingredients to a dish to cool.
Once cooled, add the chillies, dals and sesame seeds to a mixer jar along with the salt and grind to a fine or coarse powder as per your preference.
Save in an airtight container.
This can be combined with gingelly oil or ghee to be served along with idli or dosa.
BIULIR DAL—BENGALI-STYLE URAD DAL
1 cup urad dal (split, skinned)
One-and-a-half tsp salt, divided
2 bay leaves
2 tsp fennel seeds
One-and-a-half-inch piece fresh ginger, thinly sliced
1 tbsp mustard oil
A pinch of asafoetida
2 dried red chillies, broken into halves
2 green chillies, slit
In a heavy-bottom pan, dry-roast the dal on medium flame for five-six minutes until lightly golden brown and aromatic. This improves the flavour of the dal and reduces the sliminess in the cooked dal.
Immediately wash the roasted dal two-three times and drain well.
Transfer the roasted dal to a pressure cooker. Add two-and-a-half cups water, 1 tsp salt and bay leaves. After one whistle (cooker reaching full pressure), reduce heat to minimum and cook for another eight minutes. The dal should be cooked but retain some texture.
In a small mixer jar, make a paste of fennel seeds and ginger using 2-3 tbsp of water. Keep aside.
In a pan, heat the oil. Fry the red chillies for a few seconds. Stir in the asafoetida. To this, add the prepared paste and fry on medium heat for two-three minutes until the oil separates out. Stir in the slit green chillies.
Add the cooked dal along with the remaining salt to the pan. Add half-cup water if the dal is very dry. Allow this to come to a boil and simmer for four-five minutes. The consistency should neither be watery nor gluggy. Serve hot with rice and alu posto.
Double Tested is a fortnightly column on vegetarian cooking, highlighting a single ingredient prepared two ways. Nandita Iyer’s latest book, Everyday Superfoods, released on 18 March. @saffrontrail