Dhal is a staple side dish in Indian menus, creamy and filling like mashed potatoes. The texture depends on the recipe and the cooking technique, so it can vary from something like a thin bean soup to something more thick and creamy, like hummus.
I like the added richness of coconut milk in this Sri Lankan version, but that certainly isn’t required – you can substitute plain water if you don’t like coconut or don’t have access to coconut milk.
The finished dish can be so creamy you might not recognize the original source. Dhal is a general term for a type of legume that looks like a lentil but cooks more quickly and generally has more color and variation in size and texture. It’s also spelled dall and dal and there are probably other variations. Here are a few examples:
For contrast, here’s the type of lentil available in most American grocery stores:
Basically, if you can’t get the right kind, don’t even bother – it won’t be the same and the dish isn’t “special” enough to bother with subsitutions that take longer, don’t taste as good, and don’t look as good.
Spicy Coconut Dhal
2 cups misoor dhal (red lentils)
2 large garlic clove, sliced
1/2-1 tsp. turmeric
salt, to taste
1 can coconut milk
1/4 cup vegetable oil
2 medium onions, finely sliced
10 curry leaves
1/2 tsp. mustard seeds
1/4 tsp. cumin seeds
10 black peppercorns
1/2 – 1 tsp. chili powder
6-8 dried chilies, broken into chunks
Wash dhal thoroughly with warm water. In a small saucepan, combine the dhal with 2 cups of water and bring to a boil. Add the garlic and turmeric powder and cook on moderately low heat for 6-7 minutes. Keep an eye on the saucepan as the cooking dhal tends to overflow. It helps to leave a spoon in the pot during cooking.
Season with salt and cook for another 3-4 minutes. Add the coconut milk and adjust salt. Stirring frequently, cook for another 6-8 minutes.
For the tarka seasoning mix, heat the oil in a small pan and fry the onions until golden. Add the curry leaves, mustard seeds, cumin seeds, peppercorns, chili powder, and dry chili pieces. Fry for approximately 15 seconds and season with salt. Stir constantly to prevent burning. Pour this fried mixture into the saucepan containing the cooked dhal. Stir and simmer for about a minute.
Let rest in the saucepan for a few minutes as this allows the ingredients and their inherent flavors to come together.