The Indian kitchen without some lentils or beans must be a rarity. Whichever part of India you are in and whatever the type of cuisine prevails there, lentils and beans will definitely find their way into the daily menu in one form or the other.
This is not surprising considering that lentils and beans are our primary source of protein, especially for the vegetarians amongst us.
While there are at least a hundred different ways of cooking them in India, not all of them are very complicated. Many of them are very easy to conjure up and take very little time too, if you do not count the time needed for soaking and cooking.
I get around this by pressure cooking a slightly larger amount of lentils when I have to, and then freeze them in single use portions.
The simplest way (and one of the best ways) of eating lentils that I know of is mixing well cooked and mashed cooked red gram lentils (tuvar dal), some salt and home-made ghee with hot rice. While this doesn’t sound particularly exciting, those who have grown up eating lentils this way will agree that there’s something very special about this.
Very small children are usually fed lentils this way as there’s no spice in it and this mix has the right combination of carbohydrates, protein and fat.
Even the traditional festive feasts (or sadhyas) in our Palakkad Iyer community begin with this rice-lentil combination.
Dal tadka is a North Indian style of preparing lentils where the cooked lentils, usually red gram lentils (tuvar dal) or split moong lentils, are tempered with spices. This lentil preparation has the warmth of the spices added to it, but not the fire.
In Indian cooking, tempering involves heating a little oil to which small amounts of various spices such as mustard seeds, cumin seeds, black gram lentils (urad dal), curry leaves, asafoetida or others are added. The result is an undeniably Indian flavour and aroma.
The spices used in tempering can be different for different dishes.
There are probably as many versions of this dal as there are people who prepare it. Some add ginger and garlic as well. I do to occasionally, but haven’t here.
This recipe uses amchur, which is dried and powdered mango, to give the dal a very slight tang. You could substitute this with a little tamarind paste or add a finely chopped tomato instead. The taste would be a bit different but just as good.
This particular version is probably the most basic one of dal tadka. I have adapted it from the Sept-Oct 2005 issue of Tarla Dalal’s Cooking And More magazine.