Take dal, for instance. There are thousands and more ways to make a dal, and the diversity of flavor in each dal recipe begins, at the most basic level, with the choice of lentils used.
Most Indian cooks have a half a dozen or so lentils in their pantry, give or take a couple, each with a distinct flavor. But the ones you’ll find featured most commonly in dal recipes are chana dal, tuvar dal, masoor dal, udad dal and moong dal.
Each traditional dal recipe is associated with a specific lentil. For instance, dal makhani is made with udad dal while a Maharashtrian varan is made with yellow split peas or tuvar dal. Some South Indian kootus and masials use moong dal while some Bengali dals use chana dal as a base.
You could, of course, substitute other lentils in these recipes, and the results could be perfectly edible, but they wouldn’t be dal makhani or varan. Get it?
Each dal recipe, no matter what it’s called, usually starts with boiling the lentils to tenderness (I do this in a pressure cooker and sometimes in a microwave), and ends with a tadka, which is a process of heating oil and adding a few spices to it, like mustard or cumin seeds or garlic or curry leaves. The tempered oil is then added to the dal to give it a crowning dash of flavor.
I usually use tuvar dal, masoor dal or moong dal to make most of my dals. But the recipe I am about to share today is made with udad dal, a tiny white lentil with a black skin.
Udad dal has a mildly bitter flavor and a slightly slippery-sticky texture which makes it great as a binding agent in dishes like idlis, steamed rice cakes, and dosas, lentil and rice crepes that are popular in South Indian cuisine and restaurants around the world.
In this dish, the udad is combined with a number of spices, and their fire is toned down at the tail end with the addition of a dollop or two of vegan butter that also adds a smooth creaminess.
1 cup urad dal (black gram dal)
3 tomatoes, pureed (I used fresh tomatoes because they’re abundantly available in the market right now, but you can use 1 1/2 cup of canned tomatoes)
10 cloves of garlic, minced or grated
1-inch piece of ginger, grated
1 tsp garam masala
1 tsp red chilli powder
1/2 tsp turmeric
2 tbsp vegan “butter,” like Earth Balance
1 tbsp canola or other vegetable oil
Cook or pressure-cook the dal along with the ginger, red chilli powder, turmeric and some salt until tender and mushy.
Heat the oil in a skillet or saucepan.
Add the garlic and stir quickly for about a minute. Add the tomatoes and cook until they express the oil.
Add the cooked urad dal and garam masala powder and stir together. Check for salt and add more if needed.
If the dal is too thick, add some water.
Simmer for about 15 minutes on medium-low heat.
At the very end, add the 2 tbsp of vegan butter. Stir in. Turn off heat.
Garnish with chopped coriander leaves.
Serve hot with rice or rotis.