Aunty Pam's Masoor Dal
"Everything is in the spice preparation, and the ghee."
— Aunty Pam
Red dal is made with split red lentils, is generally made as a thick soup, but in many Indian households it forms the basis for other dishes, notably a thicker sauce to which vegetables are added.
There are as many ways of making this dal as there are people making it; this is just one version. My aunt was born and raised in India and learned to cook at her mother's knee. Every Sunday she'd get up early and hie to the kitchen to begin the process of making an Indian lunch. The smell of her cooking was always enough to get me up, washed and dressed so I could be in the kitchen with all the bustle and scent. I knew enough about cooking to understand how to keep out of her way but still be occasionally useful.
It can be served on its own as a soup or as a more substantial dish with rice. The cooking of the rice is left as an exercise for the reader.
Ingredients for four servings
1¼ cups (about 200 grams) of spilt lentils
1 large onion, finely chopped
3 or 4 plum tomatoes
1 tablespoon (25 -30 grams?) of ghee. Use cooking oil if you must, but add some butter as well.
2-4 cloves of garlic, minced and crushed with salt
Juice of 1 lemon
3 cups (about ¾ litre) of thin vegetable stock (using 1 small stock cube)
2 teaspoons of panch phoron
2 or more cardamom pods
A pinch of turmeric (freshly minced if you are lucky enough to get it!)
A small chili (I use serrano peppers), de-seeded and finely chopped
4-8 sprigs coriander herb (cilantro) to taste
1 curry leaf (or bay leaf)
Salt to taste
Heat a large deep skillet. Add most of the ghee. I use a couple of walnut-sized globs. This is the hardest part of this writeup as I measure by eye and taste. Once the ghee hits smoking point, add the dry spices and stir until the panch phoron starts to pop. Turn the heat down and stir in the onions until they start to soften. Add the minced garlic, cover the pan and turn the heat down low.
Wash the lentils thoroughly taking care to get out grit or small stones. Drain. Peel the tomatoes (if using fresh) by scoring the skin and blanching them. Dice them.
The onions should be nice and soft at this point, and you can add the chilis, the tomatoes and lentils. Stir everything together well, and if your pan is big enough, slowly add the stock. If need be, transfer the onion mix to a saucepan before adding stock. Finally, add the curry or bay leaf and bring to a slow boil, reduce heat to a simmer, stir and cover.
The lentils should take around 25 or 30 minutes to cook, and you should stir them occasionally. You'll know they're cooked when they start to fall apart. If they're still al dente they need more time.
It is possible that you'll find the dish thickening too much – in that case, add a little more stock or water. When the dish is cooked, take out a little of the soup and blend it with a teaspoon or so of ghee. Beat it until it's smooth, then add it back and stir in the lemon juice and coriander herb. Cilantro. Whatever.
Add salt to taste, you won't need much. Serve with rice or by itself. There's a yellow variant using split yellow peas, but you need to soak and precook them before adding them for the finish. I sometimes throw in cauliflower florets when I add the stock, occasionally use leeks rather than onions. Finally, if you're making it as a main dish, you could double the ingredients for four hungry people.
Aunty would make this dish (or a variation) almost every week. Sometimes it was a starter soup, sometimes she'd make it a little thicker and serve it with rice. Most often I remember it as an accompaniment to the entrée. Of everything she cooked, this was the most memorable and desired. Fragrant and satisfying, I'd gladly have had this be the whole meal as a young teen.
I was living with my aunt and uncle (and four cousins) for two years during school term, while my Dad was stationed in Berlin. Whenever I'd fly out to be with my family during school holidays, I'd miss this. My parents could both make a passable Anglicised curry, but I'd find myself looking over my gastronomic shoulder at Aunty's dal.
When I left home and started to learn to cook for myself, this was one of the first dishes I tried. I remember calling to get the recipe, but it was never quite right. She cooked like I do now, by rough measure, eye and taste. I suspect that there was magic too, because I could never get the silkiness that she could. I even spoke to one of my cousins about it, and she too had failed to make it quite right.
I've cooked with many Indian families over the years, and always quizzed them about it to no avail. I dated an Indian woman for a while, and we'd cook for one another, so of course I asked her. Her method was different, more of a thick sauce and she shrugged her shoulders. I asked my chef customers at the farmers' market and had no joy there. The magic eluded me for over forty years.
It's taken me years of reading and experimentation to get the secret, which it turns out is Aunty's "…and the ghee". I remember her taking a portion of the dal out and whisking it hard at the end, but was clearly deceived by some legerdemain, because I reckon that that last dollop of ghee beaten in was the sneaky bit. I never noticed her add more ghee, but once I realised that, I was happy, and the recipe is complete. Of course I made it for my dryad sweetheart and her family, and they loved it.
Aunty, you fooled me. I watched you make variations of this dozens of times, and never figured out what magic you were doing. Of course, whilst mine is lovely, I bet you'd make a moue and laugh, because yours would still beat this hands-down.