In Vietnamese, there’s a term called bùi, which means buttery and rich but it doesn’t just describe desserts. My mother likes to apply the word to tasty legumes. That’s how I like to characterize this Indian dal recipe, one of my go-to Asian vegetarian dishes. It’s very bùi (“boo-ee”) and loaded with spices and a touch of heat too.
I’ve been making this dal recipe for years and I tweak it all the time. For example, last week, I made an Indian lunch for company: Tandoori chicken, seared ginger raita, green salad, basmati rice, and dal. Since the raita called for mustard seed, curry leaves, and whole chiles, I dropped them from the dal. Instead I cooked chopped onion with the garlic and other spices to flavor the dal. On the other hand, if there is a lot of onion used in another part of the meal, I’ll drop it from the dal and opt for the curry leaves and chiles. I imagine that you can use all the ingredients too.
However you fuss with the seasonings for a dal, the foundation is the creamy base of cooked legumes (step 1). Once you have that, you can add spices and aromatics to impart extra flavor. Frying those ingredients intensifies them and sometimes, in the case of the onion that gets caramelized, transforms them. Developing that wallop of seasonings is important as the buttery dal will soften their blow once everything is combined.
Note that dal can be prepared from a variety of legumes (pulses). This favorite features yellow split peas, which have a wonderful richness, earthy depth, and cheery color. At South Asian markets, look for chana dal, which cook up a little firmer and don’t lose their shape entirely like the yellow split peas sold at mainstream markets and health food stores. Some cooks like to soak the peas first before cooking but I just throw it into a pot with water and turn on the heat.
If you tweak this recipe, let me know your twist!
Basic Yellow Split Pea Dal
1 cup chana dal or yellow split peas
4 cups water
2 Roma tomatoes, quartered
1/4 cup canola oil
½ teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon brown or black mustard seeds (optional)
5 large cloves garlic, sliced
1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped, and/or 1 or 2 hot green Thai or Serrano chiles, stemmed and halved lengthwise and 10 fresh or thawed curry leaves, blotted dry with paper towel
3/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 to 1 teaspoon ground cayenne (use the maximum if no fresh chiles are used)
1/2 to 3/4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
3 tablespoons chopped cilantro, leafy tops only
1. Put the dal and water into a 4-quart pot and bring to a boil over high heat. Skim the scum and then add the tomato. Lower the heat to simmer. Cover and cook until the dal is soft and broken up, 40 to 60 minutes. Remove and discard the tomato skin pieces, and then gently whisk to further blend the dal and tomato. The dal will break up a bit.
You can make the dal a day in advance up to this point. Let it cool completely and refrigerate. Return it to room temperature before moving forward. Add a splash of water when bringing it up to a simmer as it’s bound to thicken a lot from sitting overnight.
2. Bring the dal to a simmer and have a lid ready before proceeding. Heat the oil in a medium skillet over medium-high heat until nearly smoking. Add the cumin and mustard seeds and partially cover to shield yourself from the sizzling drama. Decrease the heat to medium. After the seeds stop sputtering, uncover.
Add the garlic and onion (or the chiles and curry leaves). If you used onion, cook, stirring for a good 5 minutes, until the onion has turned a dark brown. If you opted for the chiles and curry leaves, you only need to cook them with the garlic for about 1minute, or until the chiles and leaves are fragrant and slightly blistered.
3. Regardless, turn off the heat and stir in turmeric, coriander, and cayenne. Add to the simmering dal. Stir in the salt and butter. Remove from the heat and set aside for 5 minutes to develop the flavor. Taste and add extra salt, as needed. Transfer to a shallow bowl, garnish with cilantro, and enjoy with rice, naan, chapati, or warm whole-wheat tortillas.