For decades, dhal has been a staple dish in our family, not just because it’s a breeze to make, but also because everyone loves its mild curry flavors and feels satisfied after eating it. A cornerstone of Vedic cooking, dhal has been a major component of most meals in India for countless centuries. Literally translated, dhal simply means “seed.” As a dish, however, it’s very often comprised of small legumes called pulses, such as lentils or mung beans. Technically seeds themselves, pulses cook relatively quickly and go well with most grains and veggies.
The Different Dhals
Lentils and mung beans come in many different shapes, sizes, colors, and textures. Like all bean family members, they are packed with a balance of quality nutrition like protein, complex carbohydrates, fiber, calcium, and B vitamins, as well as other valuable nutrients. They make for a nurturing, satiating, and sustaining meal, especially when cooked or served with vegetables and partnered with basmati rice or whole wheat chapatis (tortilla-like Indian flat breads).
Of all dhal varieties, yellow mung dhal is most highly regarded by Ayurvedic practitioners. This is because it requires no presoaking, cooks quickly, is easy to digest, and is suitable for all body types, even children and the elderly. Yellow mung dhal generally does not cause any gas or bloating—a common complaint with larger beans. It also has a palatable nutty flavor.
Split red lentils, otherwise known as masoor, also cook quickly and digest without causing discomfort. After simmering for 20 minutes or so, both yellow mung dhal and red lentils lose their form, disintegrating to create a rich, creamy texture for delicious, satisfying soups. In cookbooks and on many restaurant menus, you’ll find such soups are simply called dhal.
Brown and green lentils, on the other hand, keep their form during cooking. These pulses are a little harder to digest—though far easier than the bigger kidney or pinto beans! Lentils make fine simple dishes on their own along with some spices and a vegetable or two. They also make hearty additions to soups and stews. Lentils are even good cooked with brown rice, which takes about the same amount of time to cook. There is no need to presoak brown or green lentils.
Dhal is also commonly made of channa, or split hulled black chickpeas. These beans take longer to cook and are not as easy to digest. Unlike mung beans or lentils, channa should be presoaked for a day before preparation and cooked for about 2 hours. A pressure cooker really comes in handy if you like channa dhal as it can bring the cook time down to mere minutes.
Buying, Storing, and Preparing Legumes
You can find most lentils, mung beans, and channa in Indian stores, health food stores, and bulk stores. Even some regular supermarkets will stock them. Store all varieties in airtight containers and try to use them within 3 months of purchase. Remember that the older they get, the tougher they get, so you’ll need to soak and cook them longer as they age.
Prior to preparation, be sure to sift pulses to remove any pebbles or other debris, then rinse them thoroughly.
Generally speaking, the smaller the bean, the easier it is to digest. This is why yellow mung dhal and red lentils are ideal. To increase the digestibility of any legume, however, cook with digestive spices like coriander, cumin, turmeric, ginger, and fennel. A hint of clove or cayenne is also great for kindling your digestive fire.
Whenever required, soak legumes for the appropriate amount of time (anywhere between 1 and 24 hours, depending on the size, age, and toughness of the bean). Always discard the soaking water and cook beans in fresh water. Skim the foam off the water’s surface during cooking to further reduce any gas-producing properties.
Don’t salt the beans until after they’ve cooked as salt causes them to toughen up, thus prolonging the cook time.
Beautifully flavored, low in fat, and rich in protein, this tasty dhal is easy to make and delightful to eat. Try making it as a palate-whetting appetizer or as a delicious meal in itself along with fragrant basmati rice.
2½ cups dried red lentils, sifted and rinsed well
7 cups water
One 15-ounce can diced tomato (or 2 cups fresh)
1½ tablespoons minced ginger
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon olive oil or ghee
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon black mustard seeds
1/4 teaspoon minced fresh chili or red chili flakes
1 teaspoon ground coriander
2¼ teaspoons salt or to taste
1/2 cup minced cilantro or mint leaves plus extra for garnishing
1/2 tablespoon minced garlic
- Place the lentils, water, tomato, ginger, and turmeric in a 4-quart pot over high heat. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to medium, cover, and simmer for about 30 minutes.
- When the lentils have broken down and the soup is quite smooth, heat the ghee or oil in a small skillet over high heat. Add the cumin and mustard seeds and sauté for a few seconds. When the cumin darkens, add the chili and coriander and stir for a few seconds. Remove from the heat and add immediately to the soup along with the salt.
- Add the cilantro or mint and garlic and stir through. Ladle into bowls, garnish with extra cilantro or mint, and serve.
Veggie variation: Include 1 to 2 cups chopped yam from the very beginning. Or, after the lentils have cooked for about 20 minutes, add 2 cups chopped vegetables, like broccoli, cauliflower, or spinach. Increase the water and salt if necessary.
Coconut variation: Add 1 cup of coconut milk a few minutes before serving and increase the salt slightly if necessary.
Hands-on prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 40 minutes
Total time: 45 minutes
Makes about 9 cups