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!