Lentils are the ultimate peasant food: hearty, inexpensive, and rich in protein. I’ve learned to keep several kinds of them in my pantry, from quick-cooking red lentils to slow-cooking black urad dal that are simmered with spices for hours on lazy winter afternoons. This week I turned to my chana dal, little yellow chickpeas that have been split in half for faster cooking; quick enough for a weeknight.
The key to this dish is the tadka: an aromatic saute of garlic, onions, and spices that is cooked in ghee or oil to a nice golden brown and mixed into the lentils at the end. The onions are best sliced very thin so that they take on a sweet, caramelized, almost crispy quality. The result is a dish that is aromatic, complex, and spicy, with a hint of sweetness from the onions.
- Combine the dal, turmeric, cardamom, garam masala, and bay leaf in a medium saucepan with a good pinch of salt and cover with 4 cups of water. Bring the pot to a boil, reduce to a gentle simmer, and cook partially covered for 40 minutes.
- Meanwhile, prepare the tadka. Thinly slice the onion and garlic. Heat a small frying pan over medium heat. When it is hot, add the ghee with the chilies, cumin seeds, and cloves, and saute for about 30 seconds until the cumin gives off its fragrance. Add the onion and garlic and continue cooking, stirring once in a while, until the onions are nicely caramelized and quite dark, but not burnt.
- When the lentils are done, stir and mash them a bit with a whisk or wooden spoon so that some of the lentils break down and thicken the dish, giving it a semi-pureed quality. Remove the cloves from the tadka if you can find them and add the tadka to the lentils, reserving some for garnish, and mix to combine. Transfer to a serving dish and top with the remaining tadka and the chopped cilantro.
Shopping Note: In New York, I buy my lentils and spices at The Spice Corner on 29th Street in Manhattan or at Patel Brothers in Jackson Heights, Queens. I store them in my OXO pop top containers.