Dal: The Macaroni-and-Cheese of India

When I was in ninth grade, my friend and I sneaked out of the house several times to attend Hare Krishna meetings. I am not sure what drew her but what kept me coming back was not the chanting (so boring) or the saffron-colored robes (yuck-we preferred black) but the food: Attendees were invited to feast on an enormous buffet of home-style Indian vegetarian cooking. Although the religion made zero impression on my impressionable young mind, the textures and spices awakened a lifelong love for Indian food. I began spending my subway money on cheap Indian restaurants with thalis, multi-course meals with dabs of food served in teacup-sized silver dishes. Compared to the seven-odd small, delicious and delicately-spiced courses of the thali, American style, one-course eating was repetitive and dull, like chewing the same piece of gum for too long. Unfortunately, when I moved away from my hometown, NYC, good Indian food became difficult to find and bad Indian food is..well..let’s just say your stomach will need several days’ worth of bland, American comfort food to recover. For this reason, it was a revelation to me to visit India this year and, subsequently, to start cooking my own Indians dishes.  My favorites so far have been the dals–creamy lentil dishes spiked with spices, using the Indian cooking method tarka, which calls for sauteeing spices and herbs in a small amount of hot oil and then pouring the flavor-infused  oil over the cooked lentils. This dish ups the creaminess (and, in my opinion, comfort food) factor by also including coconut milk. All the spices are available either at your local Indian grocery store or, if you do not live near an Indian grocery, on amazon.com. (Fresh curry leaves can be ordered online and stored in the freezer.) If you like Indian food, it is well worth it to make a small investment in some of these spices especially since the main ingredients of many Indian dishes are very budget-friendly (e.g. dried beans, dark meat chicken).  That said, I have starred the spices I think are absolutely essential to this dish and included suggestions for substitutions.

Creamy mung dal curry

Adapted from Lisa’s Kitchen, my all-time favorite vegetarian/vegan source of online recipes

1 cup of mung beans (moong daal)
1/2 cup of split mung beans

(I think this dish would also be good with 1.5 cups of the kind of dried lentils you find at the local Safeway or with dried French lentils, which they sell at Whole Foods. Neither needs soaking. My Whole Foods also sometimes sells mung beans in the bulk section. My local Asian grocery (H-Mart) sells whole and split mung beans-exactly what you need for this recipe. For a more exotic taste, make this with moth beans, tiny, earthy beans that add a layer of meatiness to this dish’s creaminess and spices. I found mine at my local Indian grocery.)

a few teaspoons of oil or ghee*

1 teaspoon of cumin seeds*
1 teaspoon of black mustard seeds* (Although I don’t think it would be too terrible to leave them out the dish is better with them.)
1/2 teaspoon of fenugreek seeds
1 teaspoon of turmeric*
1/2 teaspoon of cayenne*
1/2 teaspoon of ground cumin*
1 teaspoon of ground coriander*
1/2 teaspoon of asafetida
1 small onion, chopped*
3 green chilies, minced* (I sometimes add more because I love hot food. Serrano or Thai chilies are about the size/hotness of Indian green chilies but jalapenos will also work.)


1 inch piece of ginger, peeled and minced or grated*
a small handful of dried curry leaves (I always add this but I’m not sure I even like having it in the dish as you end up feeling like some leaves from a little tree fell into your food)
1 larg
e tomato, finely chopped*

1 can of coconut milk (13.5 fl oz. Lite coconut milk is fine.)*
a small handful of dried fenugreek leaves (methi)
juice from one small lemon*(Lime also works.)
salt and freshly cracked black pepper to taste

Lisa’s Kitchen says to “soak the whole mung beans overnight in enough water to cover and soak the split mung beans for a few hours in enough water to cover.” [If you forget to soak the beans, you can simply cook them longer or even soak them briefly in boiling water. However, if you do not soak the beans, cook whole and split beans separately as they will have different cooking times.]

“Drain the whole mung and split mung, transfer to a large pot, cover with water, bring to a boil, reduce the heat to low and cover and simmer until the beans are tender – roughly 40 – 60 minutes. Drain and set aside. ”

While the beans are cooking, measure out all ingredients in advance and put them in separate teacups or dishes based on when you will add them to the pot (EG cumin seeds, mustard seeds and fenugreek seeds go together because they are all added at once). I would even open the can of coconut milk in advance so it is ready to go. Indian cooking moves really fast and if your spices are not ready, you may end up burning what you already have in the pot as you scramble around looking for the measuring spoons.
“In a large pot, heat the oil over medium heat. When hot, add the cumin seeds, mustard seeds and fenugreek seeds. Stir and fry until the mustard seeds turn grey and begin to pop.

Now add the turmeric, cayenne, ground cumin, ground coriander and asafetida.

Stir and then add the onion, green chilies, curry leaves and ginger. Stir and fry for a few minutes.

Now add the tomato and cook for another few minutes.

Add the cooked mung beans to the pot, along with the coconut milk, methi leaves, lemon juice, salt and pepper, and roughly 1 cup of water.

Bring to a partial boil, reduce the heat to medium low and simmer for about 5 – 10 minutes.”

You may end up adding quite a bit of salt to the dish because lentils can really absorb and encompass flavorings. Alternatively, people can add their own salt just before they eat.

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One Response to Dal: The Macaroni-and-Cheese of India

  1. Alan Bunce says:

    I wonder what Indians eat to recover from a serving of bad mac-and-cheese?

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