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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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
  • Print

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.

A meditation on tempering and a good-tempered moong dal

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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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Simple dal series — Part 2, yellow moong dal with roti

Moong dal

Moong dal

(Part I of the series is here)

(Part 3 of the series is here)

Most Californians know of this tiny bean — moong, or mung — in the form of sprouts in their ‘Californian’ sandwiches that they ask to have left out. Or the translucent tails thrown on top of their pad thai. But there is much more to the moong bean, so much more!

Moong dal

Dehusked, split moong dal

In India moong dal in its dehusked, split form is the ultimate comfort food. Creamy and inviting, it is also extremely simple to make. Often yellow moong dal with rice is a baby’s first grown up meal. It goes equally well with rice or roti, but needs a slightly wetter preparation for rice. This recipe is about the moong dal that goes with roti. It makes enough for a dinner side for two, and is easily multiplied.

Garlicky yellow moong dal

Ingredients:

  • Half cup dehusked and split yellow moong dal
  • 3-4 large cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 serrano or other hot green chilies, minced
  • Curry leaves if you have them, about 6
  • half a teaspoon turmeric
  • 2 tablespoons oil
  • salt to taste

Method:

Rinse the dal and put it in a pot with the turmeric. Add one and half cups of water and bring it to a boil.

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The thing to note while boiling any dal is that as it comes to a boil, the stuff will foam up very suddenly and squirt all over your burner. I can’t count the number of times I’ve had to run to the kitchen to the sound of yellow liquid sizzling all over my burner, and had to tamp down the foam by stirring it. So either leave the lid off while you bring it to a boil, so you can watch, or leave it partially uncovered. Once the the foam has spent itself, it is fine to mostly cover the pot with a lid, and turn it down to a simmer.

Moong dal, cooked

Moong dal, cooked

This dal will take about 45 minutes to cook. Towards the end of cooking time you can cover it with a lid fully. You can test a grain by squishing it between your finger and thumb. Add salt, turn it off or leave at a very low simmer.

Serrano chilies, one freak, one not

Serrano chilies, one with a freakish cowlick

Meanwhile prepare the garlic and chili for the seasoning. Heat oil in a small thick-bottomed pan. When the oil shimmers, put in the garlic, chili and curry leaves.

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Cook at medium heat till the garlic starts to shrivel and the chili and curry leaves look blistered. Turn off, pour the contents of the pan into the dal, and stir nicely. As you stir, the grains will break up further and become quite creamy.

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This dal, if eaten with chapatis and a simple fried vegetable is an unexpected slice of heaven. To garnish, I usually sprinkle dry mango powder or red chili powder on individual portions.