Recipes for Cholar Dal almost always start off by alerting you that this is a dish for special occasions, served at Bengali weddings or other life events. Its simplicity, though, tempts one to break that hallowed tradition and label this a dal perfect for weeknight meals. In fact, that’s exactly what I am going to do without taking away one bit from its Superdal status.
Cholar Dal stands apart from other dals because, for one, it starts out with chana dal or split Bengal gram dal, a lentil that often features in Bengali cooking but is not used as much to make dals by the rest of India as, say, tuvar dal or masoor dal or moong dal are. Chana dal is nuttier than its counterparts which is why you’ll often find it in Indian sweets. When cooked, it holds its shape better than other lentils which reduce to a sludge, giving the dish a prettier look.
For another, Cholar Dal tastes quite unlike any other dal, with raisins and jaggery adding a hit of unexpected but delicious sweetness. And then there’s the richness from the coconut which makes the dal creamy and luscious and quite out of this world.
But for me, a huge part of what makes Cholar Dal so special is that it takes all of a few minutes to make, at least after you’ve got your lentils all cooked and tender. There’s no grinding of masalas here to add precious minutes to a weeknight cooking project. Just get some spices out of a jar, toss them into the saucepan, and you’re done. In fact, as you lick off that spoon in the end you might feel just a little guilty that you’re getting so much deliciousness for so little work.
Cholar Dal is typically eaten with luchis — small, puffy, wheat breads that are deep fried and are a lot like pooris. But the dal is equally delicious with some rice. Try it either way– or both ways. Hurry.
- 1 cup chana dal or Bengal Gram Dal
- ¼ tsp turmeric
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 tsp vegetable oil
- ¼ tsp turmeric
- 1 tsp mustard seeds
- 3 green cardamom pods
- 3 cloves
- 1-inch stick cinnamon
- 1 tbsp grated ginger
- ¼ cup golden raisins
- ¼ cup thick coconut milk
- 2 tbsp grated jaggery (substitute with brown sugar if you can't find this)
- 3-4 slivers of fresh coconut (optional. This is an essential ingredient in the traditional Cholar Dal but it's optional here because it's not always easily available to everyone here in the United States)
- Salt to taste
- ¼ cup fresh coriander leaves, chopped
- In a pressure cooker or in a saucepan, combine the lentils with bay leaves and turmeric. If you're cooking in a saucepan, cover the lentils with an inch of water, bring to a boil, and let the lentils cook at a simmer, covered. Check frequently to ensure they don't dry up and add more water if needed. Cook the lentils until they are really soft and tender.
- In a saucepan, heat the oil. Add the mustard seeds and, when they sputter, add the cloves, cardamom and cinnamon. Saute a minute until the cardamom looks puffy, then add the slivers of coconut, if using, and saute until they get lightly golden brown.
- Add the raisins and ginger, saute for 30 seconds, then add the cooked dal. Stir well to mix. Add some water if the dal is too dry. You want it to have a thicker consistency than most dals do, but not so thick that it's dry.
- Add the jaggery and coconut milk and heat the dal through.
- Garnish with coriander leaves and serve hot.