I love Indian food, it is one of my favourite cuisines. The mix of aromatic spices and plentiful use of rice and lentils is my kind of food. Plus a lot of it is naturally gluten free which is always a bonus. Although I love Indian food, I very rarely attempt to recreate it myself at home. The assorted mix of spices requiring just the right balance and correct cooking order to create the wonderfully delicate dishes is not something I have mastered.
I recently saw an episode of Indian Food Made Easy where Anjum made a delicious looking Traka Dal. I love the thick comforting texture of Dal, but am sometimes put off when it arrives swimming in a pool of oil. Anjums version however, looked so fresh and quite straightforward to make, that she inspired me to recreate it myself.
So last weekend when it was thundering and lightning outside I cocooned myself in my kitchen with a pan, some lentils and an aromatic mix of spices. There are a few processes involved but I was pleasantly surprised that the actual cooking of the Dal was surprisingly easy. You start by toasting the spices in oil which helps them release their aromatics and gives everything a more well rounded and balanced spice flavour. My kitchen smelt heavenly, wafts of warm and comforting cumin, coriander, cinnamon and fresh ginger permeated the air.
Another good tip that I actually stole from Rick Stein after watching his
cookery tour, is to use red onions rather than white, as they are naturally
sweeter, and to blitz them in a food processor rather than chopping them. This
gives small evenly sized pieces that cook well and release their flavour
without being too harsh or chunky. It worked a treat and I’m definitely going
to be doing this again in future.
In less than two hours I was tucking into a bowl of warm and comforting Tarka Dal. Even as I lifted the spoon to my mouth a fragrant waft of spices filled my senses making my mouth water. The first taste is of a mellow spice with a rich thick texture and soft bite from the lentils. Then the ginger creeps in, the aromatic spices build and finally a gentle prickle of heat comes in from the chili, warming the back of the throat. It was delicious! I was rather proud of myself for achieving something that (to me) tasted quite authentic and had real layers of flavour rather than being generically spiced.
As the remaining Dal cooled down, it continued to thicken. When cool, I was able to use some of the leftovers as a delicious spicy dip and spread, almost like an Indian inspired houmous. If anything it tasted even better the next day when all the spices had mellowed together and developed. I loved how aromatic and fragrant it was rather than just being chili heat or a one note ‘spicy’ flavour. I’d really recommend this recipe, even if you’ve never cooked a curry before. It wasn’t complicated to do and the results more than make up for the little effort involved. Do give it a go!
(Recipe adapted from Indian Food Made Easy by Anjum Anand)
500g Chana Dal or split yellow peas
2 small or 1 large red onion
2 cm piece fresh ginger
3 tbsp sunflower oil
1 tbsp cumin seeds
1 tsp ground coriander
¾ tsp garam masala
¼ tsp cinnamon
1 tsp turmeric
2 green chilies, whole
3 cloves of garlic
3 fairly large tomatoes or 6-7 cherry tomatoes
100ml extra water
Salt and pepper
Rinse the Dal or peas under running water. Place into a large saucepan with 900ml water, bring to the boil, then reduce to a simmer and cover with the lid. Leave to cook for 35 minutes. They should still be firm yet tender at this point. Remove from the heat but do not drain.
Meanwhile, prepare the spice base.
Peel the onions and ginger and chop into chunks. Place into a small food blender and blitz until finely chopped, not pureed though.
Heat the oil in a large saucepan. With the heat on fairly low, add the cumin, coriander, garam masala, cinnamon and turmeric and allow the spices to sizzle and release their aromatic spice for 1 minute. Do not let them burn.
Tip in the onion and ginger and stir together well. Prick the green chilies so you pierce the skin, but do not actually cut into them. Add to the pan and allow everything to cook for 4-5 minutes until the onion has softened and browned.
Blitz the garlic and tomatoes into a puree using the food blender. Add this to the pan along with 100ml of water and stir well. Allow to cook for 3-4 minutes until starting to thicken.
Add the cooked lentils and any remaining cooking liquid to the spices. Stir well to incorporate and allow to simmer for 15 minutes. Then fish out and discard the chilies.
Now either remove a quarter of the lentil mix and briefly pulse to break down some of the lentils or else give it a few short pulses with a hand blender. You only want to crush and break down a few of the lentils to help thicken the sauce, you want most of them to remain whole.
Add the crushed lentils mix back into the pan and leave to simmer for a further 10 minutes. It should now be a thick and soft and spoonable consistency.
Spoon into bowls and serve with a garnish of coriander (I don’t have any) and flatbreads for scooping and dipping. Also tastes good with a few peas stirred in if you like.
Makes a delicious meal or meal accompaniment.
Serves 4-8 depending on serving occasion
Note: The Dal will continue to thicken as it stands. If you leave it until cold, you can almost use it as a chunky houmous style spread. If wanting to reheat, just add a touch more water and heat through thoroughly. Freezes well.