Dhal Day

by Joan Greenblatt

Dhal DayA number of years ago we made Friday, “dhal day.” Dhal is the Indian term for legumes—the dried beans that come in many different sizes, colors, and shapes. Legumes form the protein powerhouse of Indian cuisine.

How did “dhal day” begin? An Indian friend, who began helping us one day each week, always stayed for lunch. Since whoever finds their way to the Inner Directions office rarely leaves without a meal, our Friday lunches began to take on a distinctly Indian atmosphere with dhal holding center court. Each Thursday, I begin to contemplate which dhal I’d be making the following Friday morning. Lately, my favorite is “split-mung,” a quick-cooking, easily digestible dhal that incorporates the various flavors of the vegetable it comes into contact with. Split-mung surrenders to the vegetable without losing its own distinctiveness. Other dhals I have experimented with are whole-mung—a more robust and nutty flavored dhal for the winter months. Additionally, there are the brown and red lentils, which are the more dominant flavored dhals. These combine well with tomatoes and cumin seeds.

Split pea is the most common dhal, very similar to our own split pea soup but with a unique verve. Freshly roasted and ground cumin seeds added to chili peppers give this dhal a special quality. It is a North Indian staple, and whenever I eat it I find myself reminded of traveling on an Indian train in the early 1970s. It was on that train that I was given a stainless steel dish of food with (surprisingly) the best split-pea dhal I’d ever tasted. We ate this thick dhal with whole-wheat chapattis and rice as the train chugged along at snail-speed through the vibrant green paddy fields of the Indian countryside. The other split-pea dhal I still remember fondly is the one served at the Ramakrishna Monastery in Calcutta. This dhal was truly sublime—its bright “turmeric yellow” color and very simple yet pungent flavor made this an elegant dish. It was served with a unique puffy rice which still had a bit of husk attached to it (special to Bengal), along with a few whole boiled and salted (straight from the field) potatoes. We ate this particular meal every day for the entire week we stayed there.

Sambhar, the South Indian dish that consists of Toor dhal, is another favorite. This dhal is a bit more challenging to digest for sensitive American stomachs. And, although not technically a dhal (more a bean), chic peas make a wonderful stew. I remember being told by a very enthusiastic cook that if you were stranded on a desert island and the only food you had were chic peas, you would survive since it has everything needed for maintaining a healthy body. I’m not sure if this statement is correct, but I have never forgotten it!

Once dhal is made, you simply have to cook up some rice, add a side vegetable, a dish of yogurt or raita, and you’ve got a complete meal.

Split Mung with Spinach and Coconut milk
1 T canola oil
½ t cumin seeds
½ t brown mustard seeds
½ t turmeric powder
1 t coriander powder
½ – 1 t cayenne pepper, depending how hot you like it
2 t salt
1 ½” piece of ginger, remove skin and grate
2 garlic cloves, chopped very small
1 large onion, chopped
4 plum tomatoes, chopped
2 C fresh spinach or 1 C frozen, chopped small
1 C split mung dhal, available in specialty stores; rinse and drain
5 C water
1 can coconut milk. Light version is also fine; available in Asian section of grocery store.
½ C coriander leaves, chopped small

1. Heat oil in large soup pot.
2. Add cumin and mustard seeds. When cumin seeds brown and mustard seeds pop, add turmeric, coriander, cayenne and salt.
3. Stir fry ginger and garlic for 1 minute, being careful not to burn garlic
4. Saute onion until translucent
5. Add tomatoes and fry until soft
6. Add spinach, dhal, and water, then bring to a boil
7. Simmer on medium to low heat until cooked, approximately 40 minutes
8. Add coconut milk and additional water if necessary. Dhal should be thickened like a creamed soup.
9. Top with coriander leaves.

Split Pea Dhal
1 T canola oil
1 T margarine or butter
½ t cumin seeds
½ t brown mustard seeds
¾ t turmeric powder
1 t coriander powder
1 t cumin powder
1 t dried red pepper
1 t salt
1” ginger piece; remove skin and grate
1 onion, chopped very small
1 ½ C green or yellow split peas, rinsed and drained
5 C water
liguid smoke

1. Heat oil and butter in large soup pot
2. Add cumin and mustard seeds. When cumin seeds brown and mustard seeds pop, add dried red pepper, broken into a few pieces. Let brown.
3. Add turmeric, coriander, cumin, and salt.
4. Stir fry ginger for 1 minute
5. Saute onion until translucent
6. Add split peas and water
7. Simmer on medium to low heat until cooked—approximately 30 minutes. Peas should be intact, soft, but not be completely dissolved.
8. Mash slightly to thickened soup.

Optional: Add ½ capful of liquid smoke at the very end of cooking.

Hearty Chic Peas
2 T canola oil
½ t cumin seeds
½ t mustard seeds, brown
½ t turmeric powder
1 t garam masala, available in specialty store
2 bay leaves
2 cinnamon sticks
½ – 1 t cayenne pepper, depending how hot you like it
2 t salt
2” ginger piece, remove skin and grate
2 onions, chopped
4 tomatoes, large, chopped or 1½ C tomato sauce
2 C chic peas, soaked overnight, drain and rinse well
6 C water
1 C coriander leaves, chopped small

1. Heat oil in pressure cooker or large soup pot
2. Add cumin and mustard seeds; brown cumin seeds and pop mustard seeds
3. Stir fry ginger for 1 minute and add turmeric, garam masala, bay leaves, cinnamon sticks, cayenne powder, and salt.
4. Saute onions until translucent, add tomatoes and fry for about 2 minutes
5. Add chic peas and water
6. Pressure cook on medium to low heat for about 30 minutes, or cook in large pot about one and one-half hours until chic peas are very soft
7. Remove bay leaves and cinnamon sticks before serving
8. Top with coriander leaves