Masoor Dal can be prepared in about as many ways as there are cooks who make it, which is why I'm going to tell you upfront that this is probably not how your Indian mother/grandma/aunt makes it. For me, after making many pots of red lentils, this is the method I've settled on for its balance of simplicity and taste.
With the help of a pressure cooker, this may very well be the dish with the best bang for your buck. It comes together in about 10 minutes but tastes like it's been caramelizing and simmering all day. For your pittance of effort you'll be handsomely rewarded with a soul-satisfying bowl of lentils with an unbelievable amount of smile-inducing umami.
Charring ginger and garlic aren't traditional Indian techniques as far as I'm aware, but it's a very quick way to create a bundle of flavor, a technique I borrowed from Vietnamese Phở. I also love the smoky notes it lends to the finished dal.
Throw these charred aromatics into a pressure cooker along with the lentils and a handful of other ingredients, and 7 minutes later you'll be rewarded with a rich creamy dal that's packed with so much flavor, you'd swear there was pork hiding amongst the legumes.
Once cooked, the lentils are seasoned with salt and a little sugar before being splashed with some tempered oil. Whether you use ghee, mustard oil or vegetable oil, the smooth dal is made creamier by adding fat at the end, and the toasted spices punctuate each mouthful of dal, releasing a different earthy flavor with each crunchy bite.
In case you're wondering why I wait to add the salt until after the dal is cooked, it's because salt tends to make legumes take much longer to soften. You may also be wondering why I don't add any onions. Caramelizing onions properly takes a good deal of time, and these lentils are so flavorful without them, that I tend to leave them out most of the time. Still, if have a batch of frozen caramelized onions, it's a quick way to add even more flavor.
My favorite way to serve this is with a few rounds of pillowy naan, and my friend Bee over at Rasa Malaysia has a fantastic Naan recipe.
- 30 grams fresh ginger (~1-inch, sliced into ¼-inch coins)
- 20 grams garlic (~3 large cloves)
- 1 cup masoor dal (red lentils)
- ½ teaspoon ground turmeric
- 200 grams whole stewed tomatoes (½ small can)
- 2 fresh chili peppers (to taste, split in half)
- 1 cilantro whole plant
- 2 tablespoons ghee (or vegetable oil)
- ½ teaspoon cumin seeds
- ½ teaspoon black mustard seeds
- ½ teaspoon fennel seeds
- 2 dried chiles
- 1 ½ teaspoons salt
- 1 teaspoon coconut sugar
- ½ lemon
- In a broiler, or using a torch, blacken the garlic and ginger and then add them to a pressure cooker.
- Wash the masoor dal until the water runs clear and add them to the pressure cooker along with 3 cups of water, the turmeric, stewed tomatoes (with juices), and chiles to taste.
- Thoroughly wash the cilantro, and cut just the bottom parts of the stems and roots off adding them to the pot ( save the leaves for garnish).
- Cover the pressure cooker with a lid and bring up to pressure over high-heat. Turn down the heat to maintain a gentle whistle and cook the lentils for 7 minutes.
- When the lentils are done, put the pressure cooker in the sink and run some water over the lid to quickly release the pressure. Doing this will make a loud noise and will release a lot of steam, so keep a safe distance. When the pressure has fully dropped, open the lid.
- Remove the cilantro root, garlic and ginger.
- Add the salt, sugar and lemon juice and adjust the seasoning to taste.
- In a small pan, add the ghee and heat until hot. Add the cumin seeds, mustard seed, fennel seed and chili pepper and fry until very fragrant.
- Pour this mixture onto the dal masoor and garnish with the cilantro leaves to serve.