by Giles Strong

As our regular readers may have noticed from the recent posts on here, the participants of our research network get around a bit, attending various schools, conferences, and secondments about the globe. This involves staying in a variety of accommodations, and quite often self-catering.

I love cooking and one of my favourite meals to make is dahl; it’s cheap, tasty, filling, and quick to make. I would estimate that I am close on cooking this meal one hundred times, and often it is the first meal I’ll cook on arriving somewhere new since I find it an easy way of testing out (whatever passes for) the kitchen.

Traditionally, dahl refers to a meal consisting of cooked pulses topped with spiced, fried vegetables, and is often served with rice and chapati. My interpretation has evolved over the years, driven by experimentation and what ingredients were readily available. I thought I’d share with you the recipe for its current incarnation:

Ingredients

Bulk

1 (red) onion
3 garlic cloves
1 carrot
1 sweet potato
1 red pepper
2 scotch bonnet chillies (or perhaps just one; these guys are fun)
1 cm ginger root
Split red-lentils

Spices

(Hot) curry powder
2 tsp. coriander seed (dahnia)
2 tsp. cumin seed (jeera)
1 tsp. fennel seed (saunf)
Ground turmeric (haldi)
3 cardamom pods (elaichi)
1 star anise (chakra phool)
1 stock cube or equivalent in powder
Black pepper

Method

0. Wash hands.

1. Prepare vegetables: Slice onion and add to a large sauté- or frying-pan. Slice carrot and dice sweet-potato and pepper. Place these aside in a bowl. Peel and mince ginger root. De-seed and finely slice chillies (be sure to wash hands thoroughly). Finely dice, or mince garlic. Leave these on the chopping board.

2. On a medium heat, fry onions and add garlic once they begin to soften. When onion is such that it can be broken cleanly with the spatula, add the rest of the vegetables and more oil if necessary. Continue cooking.

3. Prepare spices: Whilst stirring the vegetables frequently, place coriander seed in a mortar and grind with a pestle until it forms a course powder. Repeat with the cumin and fennel seed.

4. Add the ginger and chillies to the pan and continue to fry, reducing heat if necessary (don’t let the chillies burn!). Place a full kettle on to boil.

5. Add the ground spices to the pan along with the curry powder and turmeric. Judge quantities by eye; I normally aim to roughly cover the top of the vegetable mixture in curry powder, and a bit less turmeric. Continue cooking the mixture. At this point you could start cooking any rice you wish to have with the meal (depending on the recommended cooking time of your rice).

6. When the vegetables have had enough cooking time (about five to ten minutes, can’t really offer exact times here…), add rinsed lentils. Again, judge quantity by eye. Lentils will expand when cooked, so don’t add too much since they absorb a lot of flavour. Similarly, don’t add too little as they provide the bulk to the dish. I aim for the ratio as shown below.

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7. Add enough boiling water to cover the mixture along with the cardamom, anise, and stock powder. You may need to transfer the mixture to a saucepan if the current pan is too small. You can also chuck a few bay leaves in, but they’re not essential.

8. Cook the mixture making sure it doesn’t stick to the pan. Add water if necessary. Again, water levels throughout the cooking process is something that must be learnt by doing; you need to have enough water to ensure that the carrot and potato is properly cooked, and that the lentils cook evenly, but you don’t want to have the dahl be too watery at the end of cooking. Prodding things with a knife can help you judge.

9. Eventually, the lentils will begin to lose their individual shapes and ‘burst’. They will have been cooked before this and I like to aim to have a mixture of burst and un-burst lentils in the final dahl. Tasting can help indicate how close they are to being cooked. This should take around twenty minutes.

10. Once everything is cooked to your satisfaction, give the dahl a final taste. Adding more ground spices at this point is too late, they really need time to blend with the mixture, but adding a bit of black pepper, salt, or chilli sauce can help add or bring-out flavour.

11. Serve and enjoy! Maybe have some naan bread, chapati, or even toast. Mango chutney and lime pickle go great, too. Also, be sure to remove the cardamom pods and star anise (or just be careful when eating).

One of the things I love about this meal is how receptive it is to experimentation and I’d encourage anyone to try different varieties. Some suggestions: Use other pulses, like puy lentils, mung beans, or split yellow-peas. Alter the consistency by adding more or less water; it could easily become a winter soup. Vary the spice mixture, or the chilli variety. Add coconut powder, cream, milk, desiccation; makes for a milder, sweeter, dahl. Above all, have fun!

If you decide to give the recipe a go, I’d love to hear how you got on in the comments, and do feel free to leave your own recipe or suggestions as well.