Lentils are eaten in many parts of the world, but no cuisine has done as much with them, and as artfully, as that of the South Asian subcontinent.
The seemingly endless variety of dal – which refers both to dried lentils (and other legumes) and to various spiced stews made with them – can be overwhelming to anyone whose only lentil experience consists of the dull, salty sludge that occasionally gets soup-of-the-day status in American lunch joints. Consider the number of regions in and around India, the range of legumes (both whole and split), and the array of spices used in South Asian cooking, and you’ll get a sense of how many variations of dal exist.
What most versions of dal have in common is a last-minute addition known as a chaunk or tarka: whole spices cooked in oil or butter until fragrant. Cooking spices separately from the lentils may sound like a needless step, but it intensifies their essence and results in an incomparably flavorful soup.
The main problem with trying to replicate authentic Indian dals in America is sourcing: Unless you live near an Indian grocery, you’ll be hard-pressed to find mung beans, tamarind, ghee and asafetida, for instance. But it’s possible to stay true to the spirit of dal using ingredients readily available in most supermarkets: brown or green lentils, Roma tomatoes, and a few more or less mainstream spices.
About those spices: They must be fresh, or the exercise will be pointless. If a whiff from the jar doesn’t make your nostrils tingle, a spice is probably stale. Equally important are the more perishable but no less potent additions called for in this recipe: garlic, ginger, cilantro, lemon juice and – perhaps most crucially – jalapenos. Even if you’re a total wimp, add at least one seeded jalapeno. If, on the other hand, you like to impress your friends by dousing everything you eat with Tabasco sauce, add two or even three chiles, and leave the fiery seeds in.
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