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.