The Story

Dare to Dal

Once you get to know the ingredients, it’s easy.

By Lindsay Sterling

I’d tasted dals from time to time in Indian restaurants and liked them, but never had the occasion to cook one. I guess I was intimidated. What were dals even made of? And how many kinds were there? It seemed like dozens,maybe even a hundred. I asked my Indian friend, Shweta Galway, if she’d show me how to make one. She said yes, although she had a funny reaction, like I asked her to show me how to make a glass of milk.
Growing up in the town of Umreth in Gujarat State in northwestern India, her mom made toor dal several times a week. Her family’s Hindu culture is vegetarian, and dals are a major source of protein. In Shweta’s pantry rows of glass jars revealed fifteen legumes I’d never cooked with. There were black chickpeas, little white beans called val, little black beans called urad, and dark green BB-shaped ones called moong. Since there are more than 50 different kinds of pulses in India and Pakistan, perhaps I had a right to be intimidated.
I was thankful when she singled out one. You’ve got to start somewhere, right? She called these golden split beans, toor dal, and proceeded to show me how to make them into a thick golden stew, spiced with magical Indian mojo. It was absolutely hearty and delicious (not how I usually describe vegetarian food), especially eaten as it was presented to me, with white rice, handmade, whole-wheat flatbread and spiced yellow potatoes and cauliflower.
Although toor dal is new to most Westerners, it’s really just an old relative of the peas and beans you are familiar with. Archeologists have determined that people have been eating toor dal for at least 3500 years in India. They look a lot like yellow split peas, but they’re smaller and a different species of legume. Toor dal are small golden dried beans that have been sliced in half. Indeed, the “dal” in the name means “split” in Sanskrit. Toor dal are known by some as yellow pigeon peas in English, which might be one reason why the ingredient hasn’t really caught on in the U.S. Who wants to eat something called a pigeon pea? I think the name might allude to them being pea lookalikes. As in, they’re like peas, but they’re not the peas you know. They’re a yellow pigeon pea.
To make toor dal you’ll have to go to an Indian store to get the ingredients. In Maine you can get everything you need at Masala Mahal (798 Main Street, South Portland, Tues-Sat 10am-7pm, Mon. 4pm-8pm, Sun. 11am-6pm) or Shere Punjab (the spice store above the restaurant at 46 Main St, Brunswick, open 11am-7pm Wednesday-Monday). Click here to find an Indian Market in your state.
Cooking the soup is really easy. First you soak the toor dal as you would any other dried beans, and cook them in water until they’re soft. Then you add turmeric, chili powder, coriander, cumin, salt, tamarind paste (it’s tangy like lemon juice) and jaggery (sugar cane juice). Then in about a quarter cup of oil in a separate small pan, you fry whole spices: black mustard seeds, Indian dried red chilis, fenugreek seeds, and curry leaves along with some peanuts. Then you stir the oil with spices and peanuts into the toor dal,  and there you have it: an awesome vegetarian, protein-packed soup.
I can’t believe making my first dal could actually be that easy. The bottom line: don’t let dal intimidate you. Once you get the ingredients, your toor dal will be golden.

Copyright Lindsay Sterling 2014