Recently I lunched at one of my favorite local restaurants, Chautara, in Madison, WI. It features cuisine from Nepal and believe me when I say, their savory dishes never disappoint. Entrees come with a choice of salad or dal (also spelled dhal, dahll), pronounced dahl, which is the dish I most look forward to. Dal is a Hindu word for any of the almost 60 varieties of dried pulses (the dried seed of any of several legumes), including peas, beans and lentils. It is also a word used to describe a pulse with the hull removed as well as a dish made with lentils (or other pulses) that have been cooked in water, and seasoned with various spices. Dals may be spicy or mild–they are often pureed and typically served as a side dish, although I served mine as a main with a side salad of roasted vegetables.
Since I do not have the restaurant recipe, I attempted to duplicate it from memory and the ingredients I had in my pantry. I should explain, since I live in the country and tend to be a food hoarder, I try to maintain a well stocked pantry so I can indulge my spontaneous inspirations. I assume most normal people would have to shop for the specific ingredients. On hand I had Moong Dal which is split Moong beans (without skin), as described on the package. I purchased these at an Asian grocery but many standard markets now have rather extensive ethnic aisles so you may find them there. If not available, I think you could use dried yellow split peas, available almost anywhere. The restaurant makes theirs with small white beans as well so I included a can of cannellini beans which worked fine but were slightly bigger than what is in the original recipe. In addition, I added a couple of sprigs of curry leaves as I had a stash in my freezer but these are not really necessary if you don’t have them. I made mine just slightly spicy but you can adjust the jalapeno and dried red chili if more heat is to your liking. Don’t have whole dried red peppers? Substitute crushed red pepper flakes or cayenne to taste.
All these things considered, I think I did a credible job replicating this hearty soup. Hope you will try it and let me know what you think. Here’s what I came up with.
2 1/2 c Moong dal or dried yellow split peas
2 1/2 c water + more to thin as necessary
1 1/2 t sea salt
1/2 t freshly grated ginger
1 t diced jalapeno pepper
1/2 c diced fresh tomatoes
2 sprigs of curry leaves, removed from stem, optional
3 t fresh lemon juice
1/2 t ground turmeric
1 can small white beans, drained and rinsed
2 t ghee, clarified butter or vegetable oil
1/2 t black mustard seed or yellow, optional
1/2 dried red chili pepper
1 pinch Asafoetida, optional but recommended (A flavoring obtained from a giant fennellike plant. It is used in many Indian dishes and can be found in powdered or lump form in Indian markets. Also spelled, asafetida, it has a fetid, garlicky smell and should be used in very small quantities)
2 cloves of fresh garlic, finely chopped
1/4 c fresh cilantro, chopped
- Rinse the dal; soak in 2 1/2 c cold water for 30 minutes.
- Drain and place in a large soup pot. Add 2 1/2 cup fresh cold water.
- Bring to a boil, add salt, reduce to simmer and cook for 20-30 minutes until thickened and tender. Add more water if too thick.
- Add the ginger, jalapeno, tomato, curry leaves, if using, lemon juice, turmeric and white beans.
- Cook a little longer until beans are heated through and dal is very tender.
- Heat ghee in a small fry pan and add the mustard seed, if using, cumin seed and dried chili or chili flakes. When heated, add the Asafoetida, if using, and garlic. Cook, stirring, until garlic is soft.
- Stir mixture into the dal and stir to incorporate.
- Serve hot, garnished with chopped cilantro.
This is a thick soup but don’t be afraid to thin it with extra water if necessary. You may need to adjust the seasonings as you go if thinned too much. An adjustment in cooking time may be needed if using the yellow split peas as they are bigger than the Moong dal. Because of their larger size, you may also want to puree some or all of it to obtain desired texture. You decide based on your individual taste and sensibilities.
Hope I didn’t make it too confusing with all the possible substitutes. I was attempting to make it less intimidating by using more familiar ingredients. Ethnic recipes may seem scary but once you are familiar with the cuisines spice palate, you can make a variety of recipes.
This satisfying dal will warm you up, tantalize your taste buds and make you and your diners happy. Try it soon and don’t be afraid to put your own spin on it. Remember, recipes are a guideline so go ahead and make it your own. Report back so we can all share your ideas.