Monday, July 17, 2017

Untangling Indian Dals and Other Terminology

Anyone who has tried to understand which "dal/dahl/daal" is which, will find there is a surfeit of misinformation abounding on the web. While looking through my cookbooks, and some recipes online, I have come across differing names for some of the lentils, beans, dals and other legumes. When trying to find them to buy, there is even more confusion. There are a lot of different lentils and beans and seeds that are used in Indian cooking. I do not propose that I am a total expert, but I have spent a lot of time on this subject, researching to try and get to the root of which is which, and what names the varying lentils and beans may be called by, in order to use the proper one when using a recipe.
My Indian Cookbook by Amandip Uppal
My Indian Cookbook by Amandip Uppal


My search came down to a crunch about a week ago, when I decided to try making "Tadka Dal," a recipe right out of the cookbook called "My Indian Cookbook," by Amandip Uppal (found on Amazon, here). I was given this book by friends, and at first I thought how very simple some of the recipes seemed. Most Indian recipes look forbidding, with the vast array of ingredients, spices and other flavoring agents. This is why I have amassed an amazing array of spices over the years, and a fair bit of knowledge in how to use them. Amandip Uppal's recipes, the ones I have tried, to date, have been really delightful. Her Naan bread is so amazingly soft, I found it hard to believe. So when I decided to try this recipe for Tadka Dal, I ran into a snag, since I was missing one of the "dals" called for. I set about remedying that situation right away, but in the meantime I made it with just two of the three dals called for. It was delightful. But then I wished I'd had the third, missing dal, to have tried it out for flavor.

Okay, What is Dal, Daal or Dahl?

Dal is the term used to denote any split, peeled lentil, bean or other dried legume. If the particular lentil, bean or dried legume is left whole, it is not called "dal.

Dal is also the term for a thinner, slightly soupy dish cooked from these split, peeled, lentils, beans or other dried legume, as well as whole cooked legumes. Confusing, as I said! I created a table, which is large, but hopefully will help unravel some of the confusion. I am sorry if some of the type is rather small, but it is a large table.
Table of Lentils  Peas and Dals
Table of Lentils  Peas and Dals

Not all Chickpeas are Created Equal

Another thing came out of my search to identify some of these lentils, beans, peas and other legumes. I had not realized that when an Indian recipe called for "besan" flour (which I knew was chickpea flour), it did not mean the kind of chickpeas / garbanzo beans we in the U.S use for hummus. Instead, there is a much smaller "chickpea" called Desi Chickpea / Kala Chana / Bengal Gram / Black or Brown Chickpea. With that many names for one single kind of chickpea, it is no wonder there can be massive confusion. Once this small Desi Chickpea is peeled and split, it is called Chana Dal, Desi Channa Dal or Split Yellow Gram! Good gracious! And it is this little split and peeled Desi Chickpea that is generally used to make the "besan" flour, but until just a couple of days ago, I did not know this.
Brown Desi Chickpeas vs Garbanzo Beans for size
Brown Desi Chickpeas vs Garbanzo Beans for size

I came upon this little fact when I tried following a recipe for some Carrot & Chickpea Pancakes (also from "My Indian Cookbook," by Amandip Uppal) made with besan. I thought "I have dried chickpeas/garbanzos, and my grain mill will grind them into flour - no problem." So when I went to make the breads, the recipe called for something like 5 tablespoons of water. At that point, there was absolutely no way this mixture was the soupy mixture the recipe showed it to be - something like crepe batter. After adding about 7 or 8 more tablespoons of water, it finally approached the right consistency. And it was after this that I read that if using regular chickpea (kabuli channa) flour, that you would need a lot more water to get the right consistency. Aha! Now that I know, I also have the split, peeled Desi chickpeas, so I can make proper "besan" flour.

Carrot & Chickpea Pancakes from "My Indian Cookbook"
Carrot & Chickpea Pancakes from "My Indian Cookbook" - also called Besan Chilla (or Besan Puda)


Terminology Difficulties

The next thing I came across that had me stumped for a bit is the term "Tadka," sometimes also called "Tarka." 

I have read a lot of recipes that have this term applied to it. And I have found recipes for various lentil, or lentil combination dishes that are all called "Tadka or Tarka Dal." Okay. So, why, if the lentils are different, and the other ingredients vary radically from one recipe to another, are they all termed Tadka Dal? 
My Dal Fry or Toor Dal with Tadka
My Dal Fry or Toor Dal with Tadka

I made that recipe from "My Indian Cookbook" (mentioned above), that Amandip Uppal called Tadka Dal, using two of the three types of lentils called for. It was wonderful. Once I ordered the remaining dal that I had not owned (Toor Dal, or split, peeled pigeon peas), I felt that I would like to make something with just these split peeled pigeon peas alone, to gauge the flavor. I found a recipe using just Toor Dal on www.vegrecipesofindia.com for something called "Dal Fry." I made it, and was instantly enchanted by the flavors. I ate it for lunch, and after the veritable orgy of flavors in my mouth, I stopped to think: "Hmmm. Looking back, it seems that the ingredients for the Tarka Dal of a few days previous, and this Dal Fry were remarkably similar. What?" I got out both recipes to compare, and aside from one recipe calling for three different dals, and the other calling for only the one, the remaining ingredients were nearly identical! So what in the world is the difference? How can they be the same?

My first thought was that "Fry" in the title "Dal Fry" is a purely English word. So, what would this recipe be called if not for the word "fry?" I went hunting online, and finally figured out the problem:


Tadka, Tarka (or Chaunk or Dhungar) means fried flavoring agents.


These various dals, whether little Masoor Dal (red lentils), Toor Dal (split peeled pigeon peas), Desi Channa Dal (split, peeled Desi chickpeas / brown Desi chickpeas) or other, when these are cooked in water, have very little flavor of their own. It is far easier to cook them without salt, so they will absorb water more quickly, leaving one with a pot of well cooked, possibly mushy lentils (often a desired state) with little to no flavor. The Tadka comes in when adding flavors to this resultant mush to give it flavor. This "Tadka" can be as simple as a few kinds of spice such as mustard seeds, cumin seeds and maybe a Garam Masala, fried in some ghee and then added to the cooked lentils, along with salt, for flavor. It can be as complex as you wish. The recipe from vegrecipesofindia.com used quite a lot of things, first frying mustard and cumin seeds, adding onion, garlic, ginger, curry leaves, and on and on, creating quite an excellent mixture, that was then added to the cooked, mushy, bland pigeon pea mixture.
My Tadka Mixture bfor Toor Dal

The result was nothing short of amazing, in my book. This recipe was so good that I said to my husband that I could eat it breakfast, lunch and dinner! My husband liked it, but said he wouldn't go quite as far as I would, such as eating it for breakfast! Yet, I have done just that, for the past two mornings. I - LOVE - this dish. And I really love the flavor of the Toor Dal. Despite all the added flavors, it was quite distinct from the Tadka Dal of those few days prior, despite having nearly the same flavoring ingredients. Before this dish, my most absolute favorite dal dish was one made with Masoor Dal, the little "red" (more like orange/salmon color) lentils. This new dish totally eclipses that first one, and that says a lot.

I changed very little in the "Dal Fry" recipe from Veg Recipes of India (click the link for that recipe). I had read elsewhere that more often amchur powder is used in place of the lemon juice called for in the recipe. Amchur is dried green mango powder, used often as a souring agent, sometimes alongside tamarind, another souring agent. I used amchur rather than lemon juice and slightly less chili powder, because if my husband was going to taste it, he cannot abide anything so hotly spiced. 

Another Misleading Bit of Information

When looking for Toor Dal, and sometimes Chana Dal, many people said they were the same as yellow split peas. NOT.
Yellow Split Peas - Split Desi Chickpeas - Split Pigeon Peas
Yellow Split Peas, left - Split Desi Chickpeas (Chana Dal), middle - Split Pigeon Peas (Toor Dal), right

Yellow split peas (split peas would be termed "matar dal") take far longer to cook at upwards of 2 hours (with no advance soaking) and are a fair bit larger than Chana Dal (split brown chickpeas / Desi chickpeas) or Toor Dal (split pigeon peas), both of which can take about a half hour of cooking, with no pre-soaking.

A note on many recipes calling for lentils: In my experience to date, while most Indian recipes call for the use of a pressure cooker (which I do not own), I truly cannot quite grasp why a pressure cooker is necessary. It barely takes a half hour, even without pre-soaking any of these split lentils/peas/beans to cook through. Many of the small ones, like the little red lentils (masoor dal) take about 15 to 20 minutes. What I do is set the lentil to cook in plain water first. Get it to a boil, reduce heat, then cover and let cook - and then I proceed with any measuring, chopping and frying called for in the recipe. Once that is taken care of, the lentils are generally cooked through. It's all about timing and organization. 

I truly hope that this blog may help some who are new to these terms and the many and varied legumes. I have been experimenting with Indian cooking for nearly 20 years now, and have myriad Indian cookbooks and such an abundance of spices unique to Indian cooking that they warrant a whole, dedicated drawer of their own. I love the foods, the spices and flavors that come of combining so many and varied ingredients. India is a whole world unto its own, and has such varied cultures just among their own states. I am endlessly fascinated with their culture and their foods. I taste something new, such as the Toor Dal with Tadka, and I feel like I just ate the best comfort food, ever. Despite a Slovak background, when I eat Indian foods I feel like I've come home.



My passion is to teach people how to create a harmony of flavors with their cooking, and pass along my love and joy of food, both simple and exotic, plain or fancy. I continue my journey in ethnic and domestic cuisines, trying new things weekly. Join me at A Harmony of Flavors Website, Tumblr, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest at AHOFpin. I am also on a spiritual journey and hope you will join me at my new blog, An Eagle Flies.

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