Photo by Natasha Sahu
Listen, I’m not a picky eater. I remember being told by my mom about how when I was a kid, I would just sit there and quietly eat everything. When my brother was born and he cried at everything that touched his plate, I sat there and ate my food. But if there is one thing I really did not like, it was eating the same thing multiple times. Even my favorite foods would get tiring after eating it as the same meal for many times a week.
One thing that was monotonous for a lot of South-Asian families’ daily meal was dal, or lentils. Dal was always a staple in our house. If you walked into our pantry, a large part of it was made up of large containers of just different types of rice and lentils. The thing is, we don’t eat rice on its own. It has to be topped with dal, no matter what curry or sabzi or anything is eaten with it. After so many years of it, I was so tired of eating dal, and it became one of my least favorite foods.
When I got to college and started spending more time at [redacted] Dining Hall, I even started missing dal. It was one of those things you took for granted because it was always with you. In my world of biryani, crab curry and shrimps, I forgot about how comforting it was to just eat a bowl of steaming hot dal with a fresh bowl of rice on a cold, rainy day. It’s with this nostalgia, and encouragement from the availability of lentils at Trader Joe’s, that I decided to finally make dal at my home.
In the spring of 2019, my friends from my psychopathology class and I went to a buffet at India Palace to celebrate surviving another year. Maddie Kennedy, a self-proclaimed lentil enthusiast, only had one question for the group chat: “Will there be lentils in the buffet?” At the time, I was still a recovering dal-hater, so I avoided it as much as I could.
It was it for the first time that I got to appreciate the simplicity of something I hated so much. Maybe it was the lack of good ethnic food for three years that made me have a newfound appreciation for dal, or maybe it was the “new” after eating so much of the same repeated dining hall food. Maybe I’m just easily impressionable, and Maddie’s enthusiasm for lentils rubbed off on me. Whatever it was, I decided to give lentils a second chance.
The process of making dal is so simple, but somehow modern recipes mess it up; It’s a quick, easy and filling vegan dish. What modern vegan blogs are forgetting is the most important step: tadka, or the tempering of spices. Tempering is the quick roasting of whole spices in oil (or ghee) to release their essential oils. In a dish like dal, where very little flavor is coming out of the lentils, the spices are the star of the show. Adding tadka is what gives your lentils the essential flavors it needs to really shine. If you watch the Bon Appétit test kitchen videos featuring Priya Krishna, you will notice that she uses a similar technique in her dishes, which she calls a “chhonk.” There are many ways to label a tadka, but what’s most important is the flavor it adds.
There’s something magical about falling in love with the food you always hated. It’s a better love story than any rivals-to-lovers Wattpad fanfic. Maybe if you hated lentils, or just never had them before, give dal a chance!
Masoor Dal Tadka (Indian Red Lentils)
Yields 4 servings
1 cup dry masoor dal (red lentils), rinsed
3.5 cups water
2–3 slit Thai green chilies (or 1–2 slit serranos)
1 medium tomato, diced
¾ tbsp garam masala
¼ tsp turmeric
½ tsp cayenne
Salt to taste
Cilantro, for garnish
½ large yellow onion
Tadka (Tempering the spices):
- 1 tbsp vegetable oil (or use ghee for better flavor)
- ½ tsp mustard seeds
- ½ tsp cumin seeds
- 2–3 Dried red chilies (I used the “oriental chilies” not the “chile de Arbol” from the Fiesta brand)
- Garlic cloves (as many as you want), minced
- 1 tbsp minced ginger
- Wash your lentils until the water runs clear.
- Put your lentils in a pot with the water and cook on medium heat until the lentils have softened.
- Skim the foam that rises to the top off.
- Add in your tomatoes and more water if needed, letting it come to a simmer.
- Stir in your garam masala, turmeric, cayenne, salt and your slit chilies.
- Once your dal is almost fully softened, heat your oil in a separate pan.
- Add mustard seeds, cumin seeds, dried red chilies, garlic and a pinch of salt and sauté.
- After the seeds start popping/crackling, add your onions and sauté until softened.
- Add your ginger and continue sautéing.
- Turn off the heat and pour this mixture into your pot of lentils.
- Let it simmer for a couple of minutes and then turn off the heat and top with cilantro.
- Serve with a slice of lime and a bowl of rice.