The galloping bean: cooking with horse gram

IMG_6504I’m guessing that not many of you will have heard about the dal or bean I’m about to write about today. I certainly hadn’t. It is a small flattened bean, multicolored in a spectrum that goes from beige to dark coffee brown. It is commonly known by the rather picturesque name of ‘horse gram’; and if you think that a word like that harks back to a time when crops were named after farm animals, while animals were named for their use on the farm, you’ve got horse gram pinned.

In more ways than one this is an ancient grain. Grown in South India since the Neolithic, any knowledge of its wild progenitor is lost, though its cousins are found growing wild in the African savannas. It is the kind of grain that families grew in order to feed their cows, and then partook of the excess. Some lovely recipes were created around it nonetheless, particularly in the states of its origin: Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, where it is known by the names of huruli, kulith, kulthi, ulavalu, kollu. Invariably it is soaked for a long time, then often left whole, and often sprouted. Its cultivation slowly trickled north over the Eastern ghats to the plain around the Ganges, where it is known as gahat; and they conceived of a way to mash it down with spices. Since I have a batch, I will be exploring a few different ways to cook it in these pages.

It never made it to the chic world of Indian restaurant cuisine (yes, I’m being sarcastic), nor really to urban households. But out there in the villages, this tough little herbaceous legume grows in conditions of utter deprivation, with no irrigation and no fertilization to speak of. Being a legume, it enriches the soil instead of taking from it.

Most other pulses that humans have favored, we have cultivated in our own image, to go soft. They cook down to mush (not knocking mushes!) and take no long soaking. But horse gram, though a tiny thing, must be soaked overnight, then cooked for a while, and even so, still retains its bite. One has to imagine that a grain as tough as this, practically wild, imparts some of its wildness and toughness to the eater.

IMG_6488Some practical matters

Those out shopping for pulses in the US might often visit Indian groceries looking for them. But horse gram is rare even in Indian groceries, as far as I know. So you might turn to online stores. Here are some that claim to stock it:Patel Bros., Big Indian Store, and I Shop Indian.

Now when you have a batch, and are about ready to soak it—this is a good time to sift through it bit by bit, looking for rocks. I have forgotten this essential step a couple times, having been spoiled by the more ‘progressive’ pulses, and been subjected to the unpleasant sensation of my teeth grinding on grit. I will never forget this step again.

About the soaking. Generally an overnight soak in plenty of water is recommended; but what if you find yourself on the very day, the very evening of the meal, and must, simply must cook horse gram that very day and no other? Here is a trick I learned from Madhur Jaffrey’s books: soak in very hot water, near-boiling, covered, for one hour or up to three.

Substitutions: of course, the world of beans and pulses is just dripping with riches. So there is no reason to imagine that this recipe is fused-at-the-hip with horse gram only. Substitute any whole bean of your choice: French lentils will do (with no soaking), or black chickpea (with). Red kidney beans (rajma) would do as well.

Horse gram in tomato gravy

This is a nice simple preparation where the beans float in a mildly spiced gravy of tomatoes and garlic. It goes very well with a steaming hot bowl of white rice on the side. You could also try eating it as a sort of bean soup as part of a Western meal, in which case a garnish of some raw onions, lime and avocado might be nice.

Horse gram in tomato gravy

Ingredients:
  • 3/4 cup horse gram beans
  • 3/4 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 1/2 medium onion, diced small
  • 1-2 fresh green chilies, sliced
  • 1/2 teaspoon turmeric
  • 1/2 cup crushed tomatoes
  • 1-2 tablespoons ghee or oil
  • 2 teaspoons udid dal (split & dehusked black gram)
  • 1.5 teaspoons brown mustard seeds
  • Few shakes of black pepper, freshly ground
  • 1 3/4 teaspoon salt
Method:

Sift through horse gram to discard rocks. Soak horse gram in plenty of water overnight, or in hot water for one to three hours, covered.

Place the horse gram in a pressure cooker or large pot. Add the turmeric, onion, garlic, chilies, and two and a half cups of water. Pressure cook for about half hour, or, if you used a regular pot, bring to a boil, then simmer, partially covered, for about two hours.

Once the horse gram is cooked (it doesn’t turn to mush, but cooks through), add the salt, and keep it aside, covered.

Meanwhile heat the ghee or oil in a small thick-bottomed pan. When the ghee melts or the oil shimmers, add the spices in the following order: first, the udid dal, until it reddens; then the mustard seeds until they pop; then the black pepper shakes; finally, add the crushed tomatoes. After a few minutes of cooking—perhaps up to fifteen minutes—the tomatoes will have turned several shades darker and the oil will have separate. Turn off the heat and empty into the pot of horse gram. Stir it in and simmer gently for a few minutes to meld flavors.

Garnish with cilantro, avocado-onion-lime, or nothing at all. Serve with a hot mound of white rice on the side.


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Easy-peasy split green mung dal

IMG_6395As I have said before, dals are such an integral part of food in India that each type may be used in four different ways: the whole bean, the split bean with the green peel left on, the split bean ‘cleaned’ of the green peel, and ground. And the amazing thing is, that at each of these stages, the cooked dal presents a different look, a different flavor, and a different meal entirely.

Let’s take mung dal. Now this is the most basic of the dals, the cheapest, and the earliest introduced in childhood. One dal, so many meals! The whole bean can be sprouted or boiled without sprouting; either way, it stays whole, earthy and chewy. The split-and-cleaned dal is yellowish and makes a creamy end-product when cooked. Ground, of course, it can be used to make crepes and pancakes, known as adai in the South.

The split-dal-with-green-peel occupies a place somewhere in between all of these methods. Creamy, though not completely mush; earthy but not entirely; a nice meal with roti for cold nights.

Sai dal

My family comes from Sindh which is now lost to Pakistan. If one were to ask me what sets Sindhi food apart from the rest of Indian food, I would say, that it is our extremely vague way of naming dishes. For instance, a gentle stew of split-green-mung dal with some garlic is known, simply, as ‘sai’ (green) dal. Everyone knows what you mean. What’s the point of being more specific?

In our family this was a very frequent lunch or dinner side, that went with chapati (roti) and a vegetable. If you want to add a pickle to the meal, I won’t complain.

The flavor is the very essence of savoriness, with a slightly ‘rough’ mouth feel due to the peel still being left on the mung bean. Plus, you get the fiber which is no small thing, especially in such a delicious way.

Split green mung dal (sai dal)

Ingredients:
  • 3/4 cups split green mung dal
  • 1/4 teaspoon turmeric
  • 1 medium tomato
  • 1 fresh green chili minced
  • 2-2.5 cups water
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons oil
  • 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
  • 1 heaped tablespoon minced garlic
  • A few curry leaves (optional)
  • 1/4 teaspoon red chili powder (optional)
Method:

Wash and drain the dal. Empty it into a pot that is big enough to allow for expansion of the dal’s volume as it cooks. Add two cups of water along with the turmeric, the tomato, roughly chopped, and the minced green chili.

Bring to a boil with the lid mostly off to allow for surging of steam that usually happens when dals cook. After it comes to a boil and the surge is done (around ten minutes), cover and turn the flame down to a simmer.

In around 40 minutes the dal will be softened. Add the salt and turn off the flame, leaving the dal covered.

Meanwhile start the tempering process. Heat oil in a small thick-bottomed pan on medium-high heat. When it shimmers, add the cumin seeds. They should sizzle right away. Add the garlic, and wait until it shrivels. Add the curry leaves, if using. Add the red chili powder; this only needs to cook for a few seconds. Turn off the heat and pour the seasoned oil over the dal, and stir in to meld the flavors.

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A global stew from my San Francisco kitchen

Global Stew

Global Stew

Once you learn a new method of cooking it can lead to a bit of an explosion of ideas. The new method in this case is the one I wrote about in this post about red kidney beans—it is about cooking beans in a slow cooker or low oven, over six hours. It has all the virtues of crockpot cooking, which is that you set it and forget it; and requires no prep such as soaking, sautéing, except stuffing all ingredients into the pot. Even tough beans that one normally soaks overnight and then pressure-cooks succumb to the slow but steady blandishments of the oven.

Well, there is no reason, obviously, to limit oneself to that one recipe. Here I experimented with a set of ingredients drawn from a variety of regions of the world, that all came together in my Bay Area kitchen.

Global stew with polanta

Global stew with polanta

There is the black-eyed pea, ancestrally African, which itself is a bit of a global traveler, having found its way to Northern India as an occasional character actor, and to the New World on slave ships.

There is the cranberry, that Native Americans first explored the use of and now is a staple of the American Thanksgiving feast.

Pine nuts are a staple of Italian cooking, but the pine is a pretty widespread tree, so their use is known all over the globe. In the Americas, there are treaties that protect the right of Native American tribes to harvest them. In China, a certain species of pine nut has been known to ‘disappear’ your taste (temporarily) and leave a bitter metallic one in its place.

The use of the bay leaf I learned at my mother’s knee; while the use of tomato paste came from my mother-in-law. Butternut squash is my husband’s favorite, and happens to be one of those vegetables that were made by humans by crossing two of nature’s somewhat problematic products—in this case, the gangly gooseneck squash and the ginormous Hubbard.

Spinach on the other hand is just spinach.

On we go. Notice how short the ‘method’ part of the recipe is.

Global Stew

This can be eaten as a hearty soup, or a stew, with some soft rolls or crusty bread on the side. We enjoyed it with polenta. It would also make a very nice all-in-one side for a steak or chicken for a paleo type of meal. None of the beans or the squash turn completely into mush, which is nice; but they are completely tender and cooked through.

butternut squash layer

butternut squash layer

More ingredients

More ingredients

All ingredients layered on

All ingredients layered on

After six hours in the oven

After six hours in the oven

Yum....

Stirred. Yum….

Global stew

Ingredients:
  • 1/2 cup black-eyed peas (dried beans)
  • 1/2 butternut squash, peeled and cubed
  • 4 cups spinach
  • 1/2 onion, diced small
  • 3 cloves garlic, smashed
  • 1/4 cup tomato sauce or 1 tbsp tomato paste (optional)
  • 1/4 cup pinenuts
  • 1/3 cup cranberries
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 teaspoon paprika
  • 1.5 teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 cups water
Method:

Layer all the ingredients (order not important) in a dutch oven with a tight-fitting lid. Put it in an oven heated to 250ºF for six hours. Take it out, give it a gentle stir, and serve.


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Slow-cooked red kidney beans (rajma) with spices

Slow-cooked red kidney beans (rajma)

Slow-cooked red kidney beans (rajma)

If you walked down the street around where I grew up in Bombay, say, around noon, you would hear the sonorous pressure cooker whistle sounding out of multiple windows. It being lunchtime, every household had their lunchtime dal or beans going in the pressure cooker. Some might be cooking pigeon pea (tuar), some mung beans, or garbanzo beans (channa), or something else.

But the pressure cooker was a must. It is so much part of kitchen life in India that sometimes two or three layers of pots go in at the same time, so your potatoes or peanuts can be boiled at the same time that the cauliflower and peas dish cooks, both of which cook together with your lunchtime dal. Cooking time is measured in whistles – most dishes take two whistles. The tough ones go on for three.

In my new home though, here in America, I found that the pressure cooker is considered a strange and scary beast. It screams! It is under pressure, it looks like it wants to explode! Most can’t believe the speed with which it does its job, being used to ovens and their longer times. The small, family-sized pressure cooker which can hold two quarts is hardly found in shops, all you find is the industrial-sized seven-quart behemoth that politely raises a tiny yellow hand when ready instead of whistling.

Given the new interest in non-meat protein sources, many evince an interest in the hundreds – possibly thousands – of ways of cooking dal that one sees all over India. The use of the pressure cooker stops many, as well it might, since most people don’t own one. Cooking on the stovetop is possible, but takes so long, and requires so much management, that it isn’t often practical.

Well, there goes that excuse. You may not have the two hours to actively manage a stovetop dal, but surely you have seven hours to not manage dal cooking in the slow cooker? When I heard of this method from my friend Daljit, I had to try it. It dispenses with all the usual steps: you do not need to pre-soak the beans, nor do you need to temper it. Put it in, cover it, forget it. Come home in the evening to a wonderful aroma and dinner.

One note: slow-cookers are great to have, but the oven can do the job as well. The conversion I use is: six to seven hours in the oven in a sturdy, well-sealed pot (dutch oven) at 250ºF for a slow-cooker set to low, for the same amount of time.

Black gram, red kidney beans

Two of the whole beans most often used by Punjabis are the whole black gram (otherwise known as maa ki dal or urad dal), and red kidney beans (rajma). The two are also often mixed, with three times as much black gram as the red beans. The recipe below can be used for either of these beans, or for that matter garbanzo beans as well; though those sometimes like to be more highly spiced.

Mix of black gram and red kidney beans

Mix of black gram and red kidney beans

Red kidney beans

Red kidney beans

Added spices and aromatics

Added spices and aromatics

Sealed pot, substitute for dutch oven

Sealed pot, substitute for dutch oven

Out of the oven after six hours

Out of the oven after six hours

Cilantro added

Cilantro added

Slow-cooked red kidney beans (rajma) with spices

Ingredients:
  • 1 cup whole red kidney beans (rajma), 1 cup whole urad beans (black gram), or a mix of both
  • 1 tablespoon ghee or oil
  • Half onion, diced small
  • 3 – 4 cloves of garlic, smashed
  • 1 fresh green chili
  • 1 teaspoon coriander powder
  • 1 teaspoon cumin powder
  • quarter teaspoon red chili powder
  • quarter teaspoon turmeric
  • 3 cups water
  • quarter cup tomato sauce, or 1 medium tomato, diced (optional)
  • quarter bunch cilantro, minced (optional)
  • 1 teaspoon salt
Method:

Preheat the oven to 250º F. Alternatively, get your slow cooker hooked up.

Put all ingredients except the salt and the cilantro into a pot or dutch oven with a tight-fitting lid. There is no need to presoak the beans. Cover the pot tightly — if the seal is not perfect, you can jury-rig a pretty good one by putting a sheet of aluminium foil between the lid and the pot, and then crunch up the foil edges to block the opening.

Soon a lovely aroma will spread in the kitchen. Leave it in the oven / slow cooker for 6 to 7 hours. At the end of it, take it out, add salt and cilantro and stir them in. Garnish with more cilantro if desired.


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Man meets bean: falafel results

Falafel

Falafel with chili paste and tzatziki

Let’s say you are a human being who has encountered a bean for the first time. I’m speaking of a bean with a hard shell, the kind that looks more like a pretty rock than anything to do with food. Your mission — find a way to turn it into food. What do you do?

You could boil it, of course. Boil it and boil it and boil it. This will work, and you will get a nice mushy meal.

Or you could keep that bean dry, and grind it into a fine powder. Then, you can use the resulting flour in all kinds of batters and doughs. This works too.

What else? Well, some creative people in the middle east decided on a third route. Soak it overnight, and when it is plumped up, grind it, and fry the resulting mash. This time it will be more like a dough that clumps together, rather than a fine powder, because the beans have drawn in all that water and gotten rather plump and soft with it. The only cooking the notoriously hard-to-cook bean will get is at the end, frying in a pan. Is that foolhardy? No, the soaking did most of the work.

"Il Falafel di Ramallah" by OneArmedMan - Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

“Il Falafel di Ramallah” by OneArmedMan – Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Well, well, falafel! That is what a falafel is, and the bean in question is the garbanzo bean (a.k.a. chickpea).

(Cooks in India discovered this trick also, but with a different bean: vadas are made by first soaking the split urad bean overnight and then wet-grinding it after).

Falafel, though, is made out of the whole garbanzo bean, soaked overnight. Parsley, onion and garlic are ground up along with the garbanzo for flavor. The resulting mash is bound with flour, or left as is. Balls made of this mash can be deep-fried or, as I did, patties formed in one’s palms can be shallow-fried. The result — an outside surface that is crunchy and satisfying, while the insides are still pliable and savory to the hilt.

Falafel: street food and mezze

Now you will agree that this is a pretty neat invention. Nifty, even. Tucked inside a pita bread, drenched with chili pastes and salads and strong stuff like onion, it makes a convenient item to eat while holding in one’s hand without ceremony. This is why falafel is known as the king of street food all over the middle east.

San Francisco has its own share of immigrants from all over the world, and of course we have our share of falafel food trucks and hole-in-the-wall restaurants. Some are famous for their hot sauces, others for their pita, and yet others made their name for the pickled or fried vegetables that they tucked into the pita pocket.

Kan Zaman restaurant in SF (source: http://Pakibarbie.blogspot.com)

Erstwhile Kan Zaman restaurant in SF (source: http://Pakibarbie.blogspot.com)

Some serve falafel not as a sandwich or a wrap, but as one of a platter full of appetizers known as mezze. (This word, by the way, comes from the Persian mazze, the root of the Hindi mazza, meaning ‘fun’). One particular restaurant that ran for years near Haight Ashbury — and one that I sorely miss — served their falafel this way, on a giant brass platter with embossed designs, while you lounged on floor cushions and smoked flavored hookahs, and watched a raucous belly dance. Much as I love falafel, that was not the highlight of this particular establishment — it had so many others.

Soaking garbanzo beans and other ingredients

Soaking garbanzo beans and other ingredients

Everything in food processor

Everything in food processor

Ground up mash

Ground up mash

Add some spices

Add some spices

Mixture

Mixture

Pan-fry

Pan-fry

Flipped

Flipped

Stacked up

Stacked up

Served on pita

Served on pita

Falafel

  • Servings: About 10 patties
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Ingredients:
  • 1 cup dry garbanzo beans (a.k.a. kabuli channa, a.k.a chickpeas), soaked for 8-10 hours
  • 1/2 a medium onion
  • 3 fat cloves garlic
  • 1/2 cup loosely packed parley leaves
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon paprika or red chili powder (optional)
  • 1/2 teaspoon roasted cumin powder (optional)
  • Oil for pan-frying
  • 1-2 tablespoons all-purpose flour (optional)
Method:

Soak the beans overnight in four cups of water. The next day, they will have swelled enough to fill up almost the entire container. Drain and rinse.

Roughly chop the onion and garlic. Rinse, dry, and take tough stems out of the parsley. Put the beans and vegetables into a food processor, but make sure that everything is well-dried — one does not want extra liquid in the mash. Add salt and the optional spices. I needed two batches of processing.

The resulting mash should be able to clump together, and yet, not be dripping with liquid. At this point, you can add a tablespoon or two of dry flour if you like to bind it. I skipped this step.

When you are ready to fry, get a wide, thick-bottomed pan, preferably non-stick, nicely hot. Add oil generously. Spread oil on your hands and form the patties within your palms. You will need about a golf-ball sized amount of mash for one patty.

Lay it flat on the pan. It will sizzle. Press it flat with a spatula. When the underside seems browned (this will take about five minutes on medium-high heat), put a few drops of additional oil on the top (uncooked) surface of each and flip each gently. Another five minutes and you are done.

Alternatively, you can form balls and deep-fry them. You should make doubly sure that the mash is binding well with the added flour if this is your approach.

Have as a side or in a pita with tabouli (recipe forthcoming), chili pastes, and tzatziki (recipe forthcoming)


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I submitted this recipe to the Virtual Vegan Linky Potluck!

Gujarati kadhi to soothe the heart of beasts

Gujarati Kadhi

Gujarati Kadhi

I must have had a stressful week at work because this is my second post about comfort food with rice.

It is probably foolhardy to attempt a definition, but ‘kadhi’ is a boiled liquid of yogurt and chickpea flour that is made in various ways all over India. It combines the sourness of yogurt with the body added by the chickpea flour, and some sweetness, usually. The result is so soothing that the aromas can bring the most hardened criminal rushing back home to his mother’s kitchen. While I’m not suggesting you use this for crime management anytime soon, it is certainly one of the simplest Indian recipes to put together for non-Indian cooks.

Now every region of India, even every micro-region, has its own version. But the salience of each of the few ingredients in this recipe is such that each cook’s kadhi will be a little different. The number of tablespoons of chickpea flour used makes a difference, as does the sourness of the yogurt you started with; also how much chili heat has been added or how much sugar.

I grew up eating lunch at Gujarati friends’ houses, so I have a special place in my heart for the Gujarati kadhi. It goes well with soft white rice or creamy khichdis. But we had it with Bhutanese black forbidden rice and green beans on the side.

This version is from Taste of Gujarat by Nita Mehta.

Paste of chili and ginger

Paste of chili and ginger

Blending yogurt, chickpea flour, turmeric, chili-ginger paste

Blending yogurt, chickpea flour, turmeric, chili-ginger paste

Whisking kadhi on stovetop

Whisking kadhi on stovetop

Kadhi ready to temper

Kadhi ready to temper

Tempering spices for kadhi

Tempering spices for kadhi

Cilantro

Cilantro

Kadhi done

Kadhi done

Kadhi over black rice

Kadhi over black rice

Gujarati Kadhi

Ingredients
  • 1 cup yogurt (sour is good)
  • 1 tablespoon chickpea flour (besan)
  • 1 – 3 fresh green chilies, as per your heat tolerence
  • Half inch piece of ginger
  • 1/4 teaspoon turmeric powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 piece of Indian jaggery, or 1 teaspoon honey, or 1/2 teaspoon sugar
  • Some minced cilantro
  • Tempering:
    • 1 tablespoon ghee (substitute with oil)
    • 1 small piece cinnamon
    • 4 cloves
    • 5-6 curry leaves (if you don’t have this leave it out)
    • 1/2 teaspoon whole cumin seeds
Method

Make a paste of the ginger and chili in a mortar and pestle. In a blender, put in the yogurt, the chickpea flour, turmeric, salt, the paste from above, and 1 cup water. Give it a whirl to combine. Put this soup in a pot and bring it to a boil. At this point you can add the sweetener. Let it simmer, uncovered, for about 15 minutes.

Now the kadhi is more-or-less done, all that is left is the tempering. Turn it off and cover it. Heat the ghee in a small pan. When fully melted and shimmering, put in the cinnamon and cloves; when they sizzle the cumin seeds; when that sizzles the curry leaves. They will shrivel up quickly. Turn off the heat and pour the ghee into the kadhi. Also add the minced cilantro (this does not need cooking). Stir nicely and enjoy with rice.

Yellow mung dal with mangosteen

Moong dal served with radish cucumber salad

Moong dal served with radish cucumber salad

People have been eating locally long before it became a ‘thing’ and got its own hashtag. Thousands of years back essentially everyone was a locavore. All food was made out of plants that grew in the backyard fields or roots and shoots gathered from nearby forests. And sometimes a couple of these backyard ingredients came together in recipes that have remained classics.

I like to think of it has the boy-next-door and the girl-next-door getting married. How can a dish like that not be comfort food!

One such ingredient from the West coast of India is mung bean. There is more information about it here. This recipe calls for the split, dehusked form.

The other locally grown ingredient from the same region is the Indian mangosteen fruit. It grows mostly wild around the wet evergreen forests. The website Aayi’s recipes focuses on recipes from the Konkan coast and has great information (and pictures!) about it here. I have to admit that unlike that author, I did not grow up lobbing fresh mangosteen fruit at my brother. In fact I have never seen a fresh one, as far as I know. I had a city upbringing, and we obtained the dried and blackened rinds of the fruit in a bag. This is how it is used in this and in most other recipes.

kokum

Dried rind of Indian mangosteen, kokum

I can only imagine the sizzle and joy when these two ingredients first came together in a pot. Moong dal cooks into a creamy yellow pulpy thing, and the added rind of mangosteen (kokum) adds a very subtle sourness in a way that cannot be replaced by lemon or other souring agent. This dish is made more liquid to go with rice. There are no sharp flavors here — it is pure comfort food. When I was a child I enjoyed making it more bland by mixing it with some plain yogurt.

Some pictures to show the process.

Soaked and drained moong dal, turmeric, kokum together in a pot

Soaked and drained dal, turmeric, kokum together in a pot

Herbs for moong dal, prepared

Herbs for moong dal, prepared

Moong dal, cooked

Moong dal, cooked

Herbs, sizzling

Herbs, sizzling

Moong dal all done

Moong dal all done

Moong dal with kokum

  • Servings: 2
  • Difficulty: Easy
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Ingredients:
  • 3/4 cup dehusked and split yellow moong dal
  • 5 or 6 pieces of dried rind of mangosteen fruit (kokum)
  • 1/2 teaspoon turmeric
  • 1-4 fresh green chilies (I used serrano)
  • 4-5 large cloves of garlic
  • 5-6 curry leaves, if you don’t have them leave them out
  • 3/4 teaspoon mustard seeds (optional)
  • 2 tablespoons oil
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
Method:

Rinse the dal in several changes of fresh water, running your fingers through to free up the loose starchy powder, until the water runs somewhat clear.

Put it in a pot along with the turmeric and the kokum and three cups of water. Bring it to a boil, then let it simmer for about an hour, partially covered. Or, you can use a pressure cooker, cooking under pressure for 15 minutes.

Once the dal is cooked down to being completely mashable, whisk the liquid to make it creamy. Add salt and turn it off, covered.

At this point, let’s start the tempering. Slice the garlic and the chilies. Just for the fancies, I sliced one of my chilies and simply vertically halved the other. Heat the oil in a small thick-bottomed pan. When it shimmers, put in the mustard seeds. They will presently pop. The rest of the fresh herbs, chilies, garlic, curry leaves go in. They will sizzle and cook. When done, turn off, pour the oil over the dal, and stir it in nicely.

Cilantro for garnish if you like. This goes well with white rice, with some salad or relish of fried stuff alongside.

All about dals in one place

Apologies to anyone who might be expecting a fun and interesting new post about kitchen antics from me…instead what I have to offer today is a dry, pedantic review of some dals. I updated my page about dals, and I plan to keep adding to it with other dals I have not yet covered, and of course adding links to more dal recipes. This page is meant to be a one-stop-shop for all dal-related information on The Odd Pantry. Dull, yes, but someone has to do it.

Check it out

Image

A meditation on tempering and a good-tempered moong dal

IMG_0824

Very little meat is eaten in India; many families are entirely vegetarian, but even the others (like mine) hardly got around to buying meat for the dinner table once or twice a month. I have met a lot of people in the United States who find that hard to believe. In this country all three meals are sometimes centered around meat. In addition to forming the main course, meat products are used to flavor the food: whether it is the use of chicken broth, or bacon cooked into the sauce base or thrown on salad, or ham hocks as a base for tough greens like collards.

Many modern cooks here are learning to leave aside the bacon in favor of aromatics like onion and garlic. In my mother-in-law’s generation people were a little afraid of these ‘strong’ and ‘aggressive’ flavors; nowadays, they generally lead to a flurry of swooning.

But what if you were to leave out the meat, leave out the eggs, then in a fit of pique throw out the onions and garlic too?

What would food taste like then? Is one supposed to develop a taste for grass? Well it turns out that this type of cuisine is one of the most flavorful in the world. Jain food, which is pretty much synonymous with the Sattvic or ‘pure’ food of Hinduism, leaves out any foods that might cause harm to other creatures; clearly this is an extremely high bar, but in practice, that means no meat, eggs, fish, onions or garlic.

That still leaves the wide world of vegetables (including my beloved cauliflower), all kinds of lentils (dals), grains from wheat and rice to millet and sorghum, the nutty fragrance of ghee, and of course what India is famous for, which is spices.

Tempering

My personal opinion — the ingredients are great and all. But really what sets apart Sattvic cuisine and Indian cuisine in general is the technique of tempering. Known by various names — tadka, chhaunk, bhagaar or vaghaar — this is the method of heating fat and throwing in whole spices until they release their essential oils.

Most non-Indian people ask me if I grind my own spice mixtures for Indian food. The answer is yes, I do. But for most everyday food, I don’t need to — because I just use them whole while tempering.

This is the basic process of tempering. Heat oil or ghee in a thick-bottomed small pan. When it shimmers (in case of ghee it should completely melt and a fragrance arise) the spices are put in. There is a certain sequence to the introduction of spices to the oil. There is, I admit, a bit of magic to this. Asafetida, if it is used, usually goes in first. Dry red chilies, if used, go in next. Mustard seeds (for me) usually go in last because they will pop with a vengeance. In between come the other whole seeds. Then in go the aromatic vegetables, such as garlic, ginger, chilies, onion, if any, that the recipe demands.

Tempering can be the first step of the recipe. Or it could be the last, as in the one below. The tempered oil is poured over the completed dish and stirred in.

Now spices are great even if you prepare them in the more well-known way — which is to grind them up into a mixture. I’m not going to run this method down (a classic of many cuisines, including Indian) but here is the difference from the tempering method. When you grind the spices, you are pulverizing every bit of them into the food. This includes the essential oils but also the fibrous seed-coating and other parts. Yes, there is a bit of the cardboard taste in most of the fibers. When you have a strongly flavored meal with onions or meat and so forth, you don’t notice this powderiness. But in a delicately flavored dish where the highlight is a lentil or a vegetable, the ideal method is to draw out the spice flavor into fat, leave the seeds whole where they add a bit of crunch, leaving the tastes pure.

And if you think about it, purity is what the Sattvic type of food is centered on.

Moong dal tempered with whole spices

This dish uses a mix of the dehusked (yellow) moong dal and the split but skin on (green) moong dal. Moong dal, of course, is a synonym of mung bean. It is one of the fastest cooking dals and needs no pre-soaking. This makes enough for a dinner for two.

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Ingredients:

  • 1/2  cup moong dal split and dehusked
  • 1/4 cup moong dal split but with skin on
  • 1/2 teaspoon turmeric
  • 1/2 teaspoon asafetida (hing)
  • 1/2 teaspoon red chili powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon ajwain (carom) seeds
  • 1 teaspoon cumin (jeera) seeds
  • 1 teaspoon black mustard (rai) seeds
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons oil
  • 2 cups water
  • For garnish: dry mango powder or lemon juice, more red chili powder, minced cilantro.

Method:

Rinse and drain the mix of dals in plenty of water. Put the dal in a pot along with 2 cups water and the turmeric. Bring it to a boil with the lid off; once it foams up heartily you can lower the heat to a simmer, partially cover with a lid and leave it for 35 to 45 minutes. At this point it should be softened. Add the salt.

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Heat the oil in a thick-bottomed pan. When it shimmers add the asafetida and the red chili powder; when they foam add the cumin and the carom seeds; when they sizzle add the mustard seeds; when they pop turn off the heat and pour the oil into the dal.

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Stir and taste for salt. At this point your dal is ready, all that is left is the garnish. I have suggested some but feel free to experiment!

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The bane of every Sindhi child

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This is a meal that every Sindhi child has made faces over at the dinner table while dawdling over their food. But by the time that Sindhi child has grown up into a Sindhi adult, they begin to crave it with an intensity that is only matched by their craving for home.

When I was the Sindhi child making faces at Sai Bhaji — which translates simply to ‘greens’ — no amount of talking up by my mother about how this meal is a nutritional powerhouse mattered to me at all. Now as an adult (and a mother myself) I’m thinking — a delicious, simple-to-make, nutritional-powerhouse meal-in-a-pot! What’s not to like?

Sai Bhaji is a stewed concoction of spinach and other greens, some lentils, with other veggies thrown in. It is eaten with rice and plain yogurt and possibly something fried on the side.

One of the selling points of this dish is that you can throw in basically any vegetable you have lying around in portions that are too small to make a meal themselves. The taste of spinach and dill is strong enough that all these mini-portions will be swallowed, subsumed, absorbed and spat out as part of the Sai Bhaji empire. Thus adding even more nutrition.

Sai Bhaji (spinach-lentils stew)

Ingredients:

  • One bunch spinach
  • Half a bunch fresh dill
  • Two tablespoons channa dal, soaked for half an hour at least. This post talks more about channa dal.
  • 1 – 2 tablespoons oil
  • One small potato chopped
  • Half an onion, chopped
  • 1 – 4 fresh chilies, jalapeno/serrano/bird’s eye/cayenne
  • Half inch slice of ginger root, minced
  • One teaspoon coriander powder
  • Half a teaspoon turmeric powder
  • One teaspoon dry mango powder (aamchur) or substitute with lime/lemon
  • One teaspoon salt
  • Optional: 1 cup of other chopped vegetables, such as eggplant, zucchini, tomato, carrots, bell peppers, etc.

Method:

Have the channa dal soaking in plenty of water for about half an hour. Wash the green thoroughly in a sink full of water a few times. Chop them up roughly including the stems that are not too woody.

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Now start layering the dish in a thick-bottomed pot with a well-fitting lid. First, the oil. Then, the onions, chili and ginger. Then, the potatoes, and the coriander and turmeric powders. Then about half the greens. Sandwiched between this and the other half of the greens throw in the drained channa dal. After the last of the greens, sprinkle the salt over, cover, and bring to a boil. The water from rinsing the greens should be enough to cook, or add about a quarter cup if it seems dry.

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Once it comes to a boil lower to a simmer and let it be, covered, simmering for about 45 to 50 minutes.

When you open the lid, the lentils should be softened and the greens cooked down a lot. Add the dry mango powder or lime/lemon juice, and mash it with a potato masher or the handy-dandy mandheera.

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mandheera

mandheera

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Warm it through before serving. This is generally eaten mixed with rice and plain yogurt. Three types of rice dishes work well: rice browned with onions, khichdi rice, or yellow garlic rice (recipe forthcoming).

On my plate, I served sai bhaji, rice and yogurt in three neat sides, with some fried taro on the side. My husband however likes it all piled up, like this:

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Far be it from me to dictate which way you choose to eat it, but you won’t be sorry you did.