I’ve watched Mama Buddha make lentils, or dal, probably a gazillion times. Exaggeration? Perhaps, but a bowl of dal and rice graced our dinner table each and every day from the time I was born until I moved out of the house to head to college. You see, the Big Buddha ate it every night alongside whatever else we were eating. Spaghetti with a side of dal. Cabbage rolls with a side of dal. Stir fry with a side of dal.
Despite having 5 very able sisters-in-law, whatever Mama learned about dal she learned on her own through trial and error. By the time I was cognizant of what was happening in the kitchen, she went through the motions without a second thought, but as I’ve cared more about how she made the food I grew up eating, I learned that dal perfection didn’t come without a few hiccups along the way.
I experience one such hiccup as I was making this “easy breezy dal dish.” It went like this:
Step one: soak the peas
Step two: cook the peas.
Step three: spice the peas.
Things stalled at step two when after an hour and a half of a hearty simmer, I called up Mama and said in a very whiny voice, “my peas won’t cook.”
Turns out there were two reasons why my peas didn’t cook.
First– my peas are old. How can you tell if your peas are old? To paraphrase Mama, they will be covered in a skin that looks like what covers your feet at the end of summer.
While gross, that’s an appropriate descriptor. See?
Note how they look dry and “scabby”. Old peas.
Second– I salted the water. While every recipe tells you to salt the pea water, DON’T DO IT! Why? Well, I searched pretty extensively on the internet about this and there are pro-salters and anti-salters. Some people have said that the “salt makes peas tough”, while other claim that the myth has been debunked, (those same salt-supporters then concede they don’t add salt to the water until ¾ of the way through cooking time, which reduces their credibility as cooks, in my opinion). Other say that adding salt or acid to the water will help break down the peas, making them softer faster. I could find no science behind any of these claims, so I have to go with Mama. And Mama’s always right (at least in this instance when it comes to dal).
Dal is spiced differently depending on the region. I’ve already shared Mama’s recipe, so here’s another take. This one adapted from Saliu’s kitchen is reminiscent of those often found in the western-but-central state of Gujarat, an area whose trademark cuisine is vegetarian that combines the sweet and savory.
Note: the original recipe called for yellow split peas. Since mine were old, I clearly could not use them and sadly couldn’t find them at the nearest grocer. Pressed for time and approaching starvation (not really), I used the pink lentils in my cupboard rather than go to another store. They were questionably fresh, but fresher than the aforementioned yellow ones. They worked, but authenticity says go yellow.
½ cup yellow split peas
1 TB dark brown sugar*
1 jalapeno, diced finely
1” ginger root, finely minced
1 tsp chili powder
¼ tsp turmeric
¾ TB tamarind paste (or 1 TB lemon juice)
Salt to taste
Cilantro, chopped, to garnish
1 TB coconut oil
½ tsp mustard seeds
½ tsp cumin seeds
¼ tsp fenugreek seeds
¼ tsp Asafoetida**
1 dry red chilis
1 “ cinnnamon stick
1 bay leaf
1 curry leaf
Extra lemon juice, if desired
* in places of sugar, the authentic recipe calls for jaggery, a date sugar found in Asia. I could not find it, so I used something that I thought would provide equal sweetness
**I did not use the Asafoetida because it contains wheat, but if you are not wheat sensitive, go for it.
1. Wash the peas, add one cup water and let soak 30 minutes to one hour.
2. To the peas, add 2 cups of water, turmeric powder, red chili powder, minced ginger, jalapeno, and sugar to taste and simmer for about 30-45 minutes on low medium flame. Keep stirring in between.
3. In the meantime, heat oil in a small pan. Once the oil is hot, add mustard seeds and allow to splutter. Add cumin seeds, fenugreek seeds, red chilis, bay leaf, cinnamon stick, asafoetida and curry leaves and saute for a few seconds till the fenugreek seeds turns red and the cumin turns brown. Turn off flame.
4. Pour the spices into the simmering dal and mix once the dal is about 75% cooked (so after about 30 minutes). Add lemon juice and salt and mix. Taste the dal. It should have spicy tangy and sweet flavors. Adjust red chili powder, lemon juice, sugar and salt accordingly.
5. If you prefer a more homogenous dal, use an immersion blender to make it a bit more creamy. Garnish with coriander leaves. Serve with, you guessed it, rice.