Kali Dal

Kali Dal, also known as Dal Makhani

My South Indian mother-in-law makes this rustic and hearty North Indian-style kali dal which is a creamy buttery lentil dish made with whole black urad dal and rajma (red kidney beans).  I’m always surprised at how truly North Indian this comforting dal tastes, as if it somehow arrived out of a cold winter evening in Delhi.

I find that the recipe is full of interesting little tips, like the one that says to throw half a stick of butter, along with green chillies and ginger into the pressure cooker at the beginning, and another that asks for yogurt to be stirred into the separately frying onions and garlic.   I’m still suspicious though.  It’s too tasty.  Surely some South Indian influence lurks in it.  When my Punjabi friends taste the dal and exclaim that “it tastes like it’s been made in our home,” I realize that I should have known better than to doubt my mother-in-law’s culinary prowess and the secret source of her recipe, Singh Aunty from Punjab.

This lentil preparation makes an easy and delicious one-pot meal.  It requires some pre-soaking and pressure cooker work that may take a couple attempts to get perfect, but the dal will still turn out tasty no matter what.  It’s completely whole-grain and healthy.

I usually serve it with hot rotis or basmati rice, cucumber raita and a side of raw red onions.  Agastya, who just turned three, enjoys alternating spoons of onion-garnished dal with bites of roti.

Serves 4

In the pressure cooker:
1 cup of whole black urad dal, soaked in water overnight
1/2 cup of red kidney beans (rajma), soaked in water overnight
2 green chillies
1-inch piece of ginger
1/ 2 stick or 4 tbsps of butter

Cooked separately:
1 cup of diced onions
3-4 pods of garlic, minced
1/2 cup of yogurt
2 tbsps of oil

Dry spices:
1 tsp coriander powder
1 tsp cumin powder
1/2 tsp garam masala
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
Salt to taste

1. Soak the black urad dal and rajma in water overnight for about 12 hours.  Drain the water in the morning, and place the lentils in the pressure cooker.  Add enough water to the lentils such that there is a 1/2 inch of water above the beans in the pressure cooker.  Add a 1/2 stick of butter, two green chillies and an inch of ginger.  Bring to full pressure on medium heat, and allow 2 whistles on the cooker.  Continue to cook in the pressure cooker for about 30 minutes on low heat.  This makes the lentils soft and buttery with a melt-on-your-tongue texture.  When you open the pressure cooker, the lentils should be in a soupy gravy.  If the lentils appear too dry, you might need to add a little more water to the pot.

2. While the lentils are in the pressure cooker, heat the oil in a pan.  Add the diced onions and cook for several minutes until the onions turn medium-brown in color.  Add the minced garlic and cook for a few more minutes.  Now add the 1/2 cup of yogurt and cook until the yogurt has completely dissolved into the onions, and you are no longer able to see the “white” of the yogurt.

3. After you open the lid of the pressure cooker, allow the steam to escape.  Continue to cook the beans in the cooker for about 15 minutes on low heat, stirring occasionally to ensure that the lentils don’t stick to the bottom of the pot.  While the lentils are cooking add the onion, garlic and yogurt mixture, as well as the dry powdered spices: cumin, coriander, garam masala, cayenne pepper and salt.  You can add a little more of the dry spices depending upon taste.  I recommend tasting frequently while you are stirring and adjusting the spices if needed.  The dal keeps acquiring flavor as it cooks slowly over the flame.

Kattu, toor dal with garlic

(clockwise from left) Garlic, turmeric and toor dal

In the winter, Agastya starts sniffling.  One sniffle turns into the next and we start on a progression of back-to-back colds. Sometimes they start with a fever, sometimes with runny sneezes and sometimes with a bad cough.  They last a week, sometimes two, and a new cold often starts before the old one finishes.  I gaze enviously at children who don’t seem to have colds and wonder what their mothers do.  Agastya’s doctor gives me a stern look when I complain.  “It could be worse,” “at least he doesn’t have an ear infection,” or “he’s so healthy otherwise,” she says.

Each time Agastya gets a new cold I go into an intense cause and effect analysis.  Now Agastya dresses warmly each time he goes out, he washes his hands more often, and we never compromise on sleep and naps.  I have also found a link, albeit somewhat tenuous, between ice-cream consumption and colds.  So no more of that stuff.  The credit really goes to his nanny who hides all the tubs of ice-cream at the back of our freezer and shows him an empty fridge when he remembers to ask for some.  “See, there’s no ice-cream,” says Rose, lifting him up to inspect the empty shelves.  Agastya with his growing powers of reasoning has decided that his mother is responsible for this lack of ice-cream.  One afternoon I hear him sagely remark to Rose that “Mummy ate all the ice-cream,” with a particular drawn-out emphasis on the word “all” in his baby lisp.  I feel suitably guilty.

Still unable to beat the cold, I start asking every mother I know about their view on colds.  Several answers emerge, and interestingly, they all seem to be related to food.  My in-laws suggest honey for coughs, my mother recommends ginger, a cousin mentions yogurt and a friend says to add a fat clove of garlic to Agastya’s food each day.   The last suggestion works a minor miracle.  In the modern day, and in the face of virulent bugs and persistent coughs and sleepless nights, I have tended to get fairly dismissive of home remedies.  But the garlic does appear to have an immediate and positive effect.  I start rethinking all of Agastya’s meals – onions with eggs in the morning with a side of brightly colored berries, a green (broccoli, spinach) or orange (butternut squash, carrot) soup with a large clove of sauteed garlic at lunch, fruit and yogurt for a snack and a lentil preparation at night, with turmeric, garlic and ginger.

The lentil requirement brings to mind the kattu that my mother-in-law makes.  It is a simple, nourishing and surprisingly tasty toor dal dish.  Boil a cup of dry dal in the pressure cooker and keep aside.  Chop several pods of garlic into chunks and saute in a tablespoonful of hot ghee on medium heat until the garlic turns faintly golden.  Sputter a half teaspoonful each of cumin seeds and mustard seeds, add a pinch of asafoetida and a few fresh green curry leaves.  Green chillies can be sliced and added for heat and flavor.  Add the dal and some water to bring to the required consistency.  Add a generous pinch of turmeric, and salt to taste.  Stir and boil for a few minutes.  Serve with rice or rotis or as a soup on its own.  Note that this dal is perfectly tasty with just the sauteed garlic, turmeric and salt, and that the consistency can be thick or thin depending on personal preference.


Sambar with eggplant and okra

Every Sunday, my parents and I would go to eat dosa, or crispy South Indian rice crepes at the Super Snack Bar in Alipore, which seemed at the time a long drive from our home in Calcutta’s Ballygunge neighborhood.  My dad loved dosa, and since he was frequently away on business trips, I looked forward to these dosa expeditions when he was back.

Super Snack Bar was always very busy on Sunday mornings. The air would be heavy with the smell of frying dosas, unfamiliar spices and fermented batter.  I remember being placed on the tall black countertop at the restaurant, small legs dangling over the side, where patrons stood and consumed their dosa.  I would wait impatiently for the food to arrive, and would immediately attack my dad’s plate, dipping bits of crunchy golden dosa and pieces of steamed rice-and-lentil cakes called idli into the very spicy coconut chutney and fiery red-hot lentil soup called sambar. Busy waiters circulated with the tiny cups of extra sambar and coconut chutney.   The spicy sambar was difficult to consume in any meaningful quantity, and I would watch round-eyed as my mother drank hers easily.  “That’s what it means to be a grown-up,” I would think.  “Someday, I’ll be able to take all that heat and spice too.”  Over the years, I encountered many sambars, some tasty and found during South India travels but others mostly bland, lackluster and uninspiring.   It took the finding of a South Indian husband, and the arrival of a South Indian mother-in-law to understand how a proper sambar should taste.

The secret to my mother-in-law’s recipe lies in the sambar powder or dry masala that she makes from scratch instead of using a packaged mix.  Although it may seem tedious to make the masala, it is entirely worth the effort.  This dry mixture keeps well in an airtight container for several months.  I also enjoy adding vegetables, such as small whole eggplant, tiny whole onions and pieces of lauki or bottle gourd to my sambar when the tamarind-water mixture is being boiled, but this is entirely optional.  Sambar is usually served with rice, idli, dosa and fried lentil donuts called vada.

Serves 3-4

To make the sambar powder

1 tsp ghee
2 tsp chana dal
1 ½ tsp white split urad dal
1 tsp whole coriander seeds
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp black peppercorn
3-4 dried red chillies

Fry separately in ghee:
Generous pinch of asafoetida
½ tsp fenugreek seeds

Do not fry
2-3 tbsp grated coconut, fresh or frozen and defrosted

1. Heat the first set of spices in a pan with a little ghee, on medium flame for 3-4 minutes until the fragrant smell of spices is released.  Follow this order: chana dal, urad dal, cumin seeds, coriander seeds, black peppercorn, and dried red chillies.
2. Separately, fry the pinch of asafoetida and fenugreek seeds with a spot of ghee until the fenugreek seeds become a little dark in color.
3. Coarsely grind all of the spices in a dry spice grinder or coffee bean grinder, including the coconut.
4. Add some water and make a paste.

Note: the  dry spice mixture, before adding coconut can be stored for later use.

Making the sambar
1 cup of dry toor dal
1 tbsp ghee
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 ½ tsp mustard seeds
Pinch of asafoetida
2-3 dried red chillies
1/2 large red onion cut into long slices
1 large tomato, diced
A handful of cilantro, chopped
Lime sized ball of fresh tamarind fruit paste soaked in 1 tbsp of water

1. Place the toor dal in a pressure cooker with water:dal in the ratio 2:1 and cook on medium heat until the cooker emits 3 whistles.  Meanwhile, heat the ghee in a pan and sputter the cumin seeds, asafoetida, dried red chillies and mustard seeds.  Next, add the onions and fry till they become brown.
2. Add the tomatoes and cilantro.  Cook till tomatoes are tender.
3. Add tamarind and salt to taste.  Add about 2-3 cups of water.  When the mixture comes to a boil, add the sambar masala paste (about 2-3 tbsp or to taste) and the boiled dal to the mixture.  Add water as needed for desired consistency.
4. Bring mixture to boil.  Continue to boil for 1 or 2 minutes until the sambar gets its taste.

Pappu Charu

Pappu charu

“What will your mother-in-law say? You don’t even know how to boil dal,” my mother would fret during my growing up years in Calcutta.  Strangely, she never actually required me to enter her kitchen or help with chores in any way.  “No, no, go study,” she would say.  Perhaps we both had an inkling of what lay in my future: a kind mother-in-law who would teach me to make the most glorious toor dal preparation ever.  Namely, a mouth-puckering, sweet and tangy golden lentil stew studded with pieces of lauki or green bottle gourd, chunks of pumpkin, and large pieces of sweet potato, called pappu charu.

Pappu means dal in Telugu.  I have no idea what the word charu means, but to my happy taste buds, the word always sounds like “lovely and pleasing.”  Therefore, a lovely dal that pleases.  This dal is sweetened with gur or jaggery and its sour taste comes from a generous dollop of tamarind fruit paste.  I especially enjoy making (and eating) pappu charu in the fall when the markets are bursting with fresh pumpkin, butternut squash and sweet potatoes.  I love the bits of vegetable in this dish and enjoy “fishing” them out and mashing them with my fingers into the dal.  While cooking, it is important to boil the vegetables with tamarind and jaggery in order that they imbibe the flavors of both.

Serves 4

1/2 cup of dry toor dal

Lime-sized ball of tamarind fruit paste, soaked in 1 cup of water

1 medium sized sweet potato, cut in 1-inch thick rounds, with the skin
3 two-inch chunks of green bottle gourd or lauki, peeled
3 two-inch large chunks of pumpkin or butternut squash, with the skin

1/4 tsp turmeric
2 green chillies sliced in half
A piece of jaggery

For the tarka:
1 tsbp oil
4-5 pods of garlic, sliced in half

1/4 tsp fenugreek seeds
1 tsp urad dal
1/2 tsp mustard seeds
1 tsp cumin seeds
2 dry red chillies
Pinch of asafoetida

6-8 fresh curry leaves
Salt to taste

1. Dal: Boil the toor dal in a pressure cooker, with water:dal in the ratio 2:1.  Remove cooked dal from the pressure cooker and set aside.

2. Vegetables in tamarind water: In the pressure cooker, add the tamarind water (never whole dry tamarind) and all the vegetables.  Then add water until the vegetables are slightly submerged in the water.  A 5-litre pressure cooker, for instance, should be about 1/3- 1/4 full.  Remember that these vegetables also give off water while cooking so you don’t want too much water in the cooker.  Add 1/2 tsp of salt, turmeric, about half the jaggery and the sliced green chillies.  Bring to 1 whistle on the pressure cooker, and set aside. Alternatively, boil this mixture on the stove until the vegetables are soft. I tend to prefer stove boiling as the pressure cooker can sometimes overcook the vegetables.

3. For tarka: Heat the oil in a small pan, and add the tarka spices in this order – first garlic, urad dal, fenugreek seeds and mustard seeds.  Wait for a few seconds until the garlic turns slightly golden.  Next, add the cumin seeds, dry red chillies and asafoetida.  Let the cumin seeds sputter for a few seconds.  Remove from flame.

4. Add the boiled dal and tarka to the tamarind-vegetable mixture, along with the green curry leaves.  Note: add the dal slowly, as you want a runny stew.  If there is too much dal, the mixture gets too thick and tends to lack flavor.  Stir gently, so that the vegetables don’t disintegrate.  Add salt and the remaining jaggery, both to taste.  Bring to a boil, and allow the stew-like mixture to boil for a few minutes.  Serve hot with basmati rice.