Cooks on the path of discovery can be a little obsessive. When I start to learn about a regional dish, or perhaps an ingredient or a method of cooking I'm not familiar with, I immerse myself until I get a feel for what the basics are. Then I start to experiment. Such is the case these days with Indian dal recipes. Dal are those slightly soupy, highly aromatic, super-nutritious dishes made with different pulses — dried beans, lentils, chickpeas, and peas. I've cooked and eaten plenty of pulses over the years, but rarely using the flavors and techniques favored in India.
This all began one night in my local Indian restaurant, when I ordered the famous dish dal makhani. Slow-cooked black lentils and red kidney beans are enhanced with subtle Indian spicing, sometimes a shot of hot chiles, and tons of butter and heavy cream. It's definitely rich party fare, and definitely not on my slimming winter diet, but the dish is really good and I was hooked.
I called my friend Ra, whose family is from northern India, for consultation. He told me dal of all varieties are his favorite dishes. Dal is comfort food, he said, and moong dal is what his mother would make for him when he came home from college. She would feed it to him to "keep his strength up." He said I had to speak with her about her recipe. OK, good; I like going to the experts for help.
Ra's mother, Sushma, got her master's degree at Lehigh University and taught history until retirement. She lives in Baltimore, was recovering from an illness, and was winging off to India very soon. But she loves to cook and loves dal recipes, so she took a few calls in the spirit of culinary consultation.
Red, green, and black pulses are used in India, but she said by far the most often-prepared dal recipe, the one cooked most in the home as comfort food for the family, is moong dal. Mung beans start out dark green, but when their skins are removed they turn a beautiful yellow. Pulses are hugely popular as a source of practically fat-free protein in vegetarian diets around the world, and this is especially so in India. They are high in fiber, and also contain B vitamins. What's not to like?
The basic cooking of split mung beans is easy and quick. Spread them out on a tray and pick out any stray stones or debris. Then give them a wash and drain them. Mix with vegetable stock or water, ginger, and turmeric, and bring to a boil. Then gently simmer until they are tender and much of the liquid is absorbed.
Garnishes are where things get interesting. From what I gather, possibilities vary tremendously, and as with all homey comfort-food recipes, much depends on region and family tradition. Sushma keeps it really simple, insisting that one shouldn't mask the flavor of the mild, delicate yellow moong dal too much. She sautés onion, adds turmeric, ginger, and salt, finishes the dish with a few cilantro leaves, and that's it.
I get a little more elaborate. The more recipes I read, the more I discover certain spice combinations popping up often. For this recipe, I begin by toasting cumin and coriander seeds, then add garlic and hot red chiles. The kitchen explodes with aromas I usually only smell at Indian restaurants. Then I add onions and cook them gently until they are well softened. Finally, I add a few cherry tomatoes for a touch of sweetness. When you spoon this colorful and pungent mixture over the dal, it enhances and transforms the humble mung beans and adds robust layers of flavor to each spoonful. Fresh cilantro on the top adds a bright, fresh finishing touch.
One thing for sure is I will never learn everything I want to about cooking; there is just too much to know. But I get a kick out of learning to cook familiar ingredients flavored in unfamiliar ways. Moong dal is a terrific introduction to the wonderful world of Indian pulses.