Bittermelons and Brownies: How to Eat Lentils (Daal)

Life boils over like daal. It is eventually, inevitable. You can put a wooden spoon across the top of the pot, add salt (risking chewy lentil soup) and do other tricks, regardless assume you will have to clean the stove after cooking a pot of lentils. Sometimes like a pot of boiling daal our lives spill over despite our best efforts.

The world of lentils is a vast array of colors, shapes and sizes. The health benefit of plant-based diets that includes lentils is well documented. Lentils (along with beans) can also cause uncomfortable gas. To reduce the magic of lentils to what it can do for us flattens the story. Instead I like to consider how we interact with lentils from growing, collecting, distributing, cooking and eating.

My relationship with my pot of daal is always mixed, full of suspicion and familiarity. Daal is like family, always comforting and nourishing yet sometimes boiling over, chewy and messy. The first tastes of both my daughters included mushy rice with light daal or kitchuri. Their taste palate expanded each time I added a tiny bit of vegetable or meat to the neutral rice and lentil base.

Lentils bloom when they meet water and fire. The rush of expansion makes them explode beyond their confinement. It can be both liberating and traumatic. The softening and rise of cooking lentils have a lot to teach us. Transformative events break us down, fuel our growth, make us softer, sometimes spill over, and sometimes create a mess. There is risk, and reward.

As a location in existence my pot of lentils encounter water, heat and me to become daal. Lentils are more than mere vegetable protein, nourishment for humans, in ways that our human centric mind may not fathom. Lentil transform into daal by virtue of all the things that are not lentils, not it. Lentils left alone would remain in its grain state. Everything around it not lentils in a specific combination help alter its state into a soup. A good source of fiber, lentils and legumes absorb flavors. In this way, lentils are similar to flavor absorbing eggplant with the added benefit of fiber.

Eating daal with the right hand is an art form. Learning how to eat soupy rice takes practice. The angle and speed of delivery from plate to mouth requires careful modulation. Culturally, thicker daals are served during winter months, while light lemony daals are enjoyed during the summer months. Khichuri (a dish of rice and lentils) would be served mostly during Monsoon months with fried eggplant.

This was one of my first dishes I learned to make after learning how to cook rice and fry an egg. Thank you Bhabi for teaching me to make daal and bhaji.

Rice, daal and fried eggplant. This is a good start for a Bengali meal.

Ingredients (You’ll find the proportions that suit your preference)

  • 1 cup Lentils
  • 2-3 cups Water
  • 3 Tablespoons Ghee
  • 1 teaspoon Tumeric
  • 1 Medium Onion or 3 small shallots
  • 1 clove of Garlic
  • 1 teaspoon Cumin Seeds

1. Boil the rinsed lentils over a medium flame (red, split pea, yellow, azuki, kidney, urad etc.) until soft. Add at least double amount of water. Add more water, the bigger the bean. You want the water to cover the beans by at least an inch.

2. Once the lentils are soft, add tumeric and salt. A teaspoon of each for every cup of lentils is usually enough.

3. This where you can get as fancy or keep as simple as you like.  Saute in ghee or the oil of your choice: onion slices for a basic dal.

At this point you can also include: garlic, ginger, tomatoes, cumin seeds, garam masala, coriander leaves, dry chili peppers, bay leaves, depending on what you have and like.

You can also add coconut milk or cream for the heavier beans like kidney or adzuki to give the daal, heartiness. On the other end of the spectrum for a light summer daal you can boil and strain red or yellow lentil fibers add lemon juice, cilantro and mint for a bright broth.

Pour the flavored oil with the spices and fried onions over the soup. Mix in or leave the flavored oil and toasted spices floating above the rich soup. Enjoy with steaming rice or hot flaky bread.

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