Smells are surer than sounds or sights
To make your heart-strings crack—
They start those awful voices o’nights
That whisper, “Old man, come back!”
—Rudyard Kipling, Lichtenburg.
Rudyard Kipling was born in Bombay (Mumbai), India, and educated in England. The Nobel prize winning author returned to India at the age of 17, and wrote for Anglo-Indian newspapers. He is best known as a writer of short stories including Just So Stories – a collection of stories for children and always a favorite in our house. “The first condition of understanding a foreign country is to smell it” is a quote attributed to Mr. Kipling. Certainly the savory, pungent smells of Indian food brought him back to the country of his birth even in his absence.
That delightful fragrance begins with “snap, crackle, pop!” Black mustard seeds (not Rice Krispies 🙂 ) sizzling in hot oil signal the start of a delightful olfactory experience that culminates in a palate-pleasing complexity of flavor. Indian food is a favorite in our house, whether it be a humble pot of dal served with rice and yogurt, creamy and rich butter chicken, or the somewhat time-consuming palak paneer. In my not-so-humble opinion, there is no cuisine more fragrant.
Let’s talk about “curry,” and what it is not. Curry is not a dish made with curry powder. Curry powder, and use of the word “curry,” is a western invention, and does not represent any specific Indian (or other Asian) dish. India is a vast and diverse country, and its cuisine varies not only by region but by household. Garam masala is a spice mix commonly used by Indian cooks, but even garam masala is frequently a combination of spices put together by an individual cook in his or her own kitchen. The curry powder spice mix available in U.S. markets is a nice blend of spices, including turmeric, which provides the yellow color to a dish that is frequently associated with Indian cooking. If you love Indian food and flavors, and rely solely on curry powder spice mix to flavor an Indian-style dish, you will be sorely disappointed with the results.
Indian cooking relies heavily on complex blends of spices. The best results are obtained when the spices are freshly ground, and fried in a hot pan. Onion, garlic, and fresh ginger are commonly pureed and then added to hot ghee or oil and stir-fried. I have referred to my well-stocked pantry in numerous posts, and I stock many of the items used in Indian cooking. For more information on stocking your pantry for Indian cooking, see Stocking Your Pantry. Also, my Pantry-Checklist is available as a download, and you can customize it to fit your own needs. You will find many of the items commonly used in Indian cooking on my list, including the ingredients to make Chana Dal with Spinach.
I start this recipe with the chana dal already cooked to tender but not soft. There are several ways to cook them according to the amount of time available. The pressure cooker is such a great time-saver, and is the method I most often use. If you plan ahead, you can cook them all day on low in a slow cooker. Alternatively, they can be simmered on the stove for 1 to 1 1/2 hours. Take a minute to inspect the dal and rinse them. Place them in a large pot (stove, slow cooker, or pressure cooker), and cover with water to about 2 or 3 inches above the dal. Add about 2 teaspoons of salt. Keep an eye on the water as they will absorb quite a bit. When the dal is tender but not soft, drain, rinse, and set aside.
You will want to get your ingredients out, spices ground, and the onion, ginger, and garlic pureed before you begin cooking. It will come together quickly. Serve over steamed brown basmati rice with a dollop of plain Greek yogurt and garnished with cilantro.
- Start with your dal cooked to al dente – just barely tender. They will cook a bit more with the other ingredients.
- Make sure your spices are fresh. Even in Las Cruces, we have a small Indian grocery with a good selection of Indian spices. They move them faster, and thus, they are fresher. Old spices lose their flavor.
- Use a spatter screen if possible. When the pureed onion mixture hits the hot oil, it erupts, and will make a mess!
- Taste for seasoning before serving. Correctly seasoned dal allows the flavors to sing 🙂
- Feel free to vary the heat. I prefer a Fresno chile or two, and I sometimes use cayenne. Small dried red chiles also work well. Heat is a matter of personal preference.
- I specify vegetable broth or stock, but you can substitute chicken broth or stock if you’d like. I love to make my own, but keep good quality stock on hand as well.
- You may substitute other dals – toor, masoor, urad, etc. – keeping in mind the cooking times vary. It is best to start with cooked dal.
Savor the spicy flavors of this nutritious Indian dish... This is quick and simple enough for a weeknight supper!
15 minPrep Time
45 minCook Time
1 hrTotal Time
- 1 1/2 cups chana dal*
- water to cover
- 1 tsp salt
- 2" ginger, chopped
- 5 garlic cloves
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- 1 tsp coriander seed
- 1 tsp cumin seed
- 1/2 tsp fenugreek seed
- 1-2 tbsp canola or vegetable oil
- 1 tsp black mustard seeds
- 1 or 2 Fresno chiles, stems and seeds removed, and minced**
- 1 tsp garam masala
- 1 tsp turmeric
- 2-3 cups vegetable (or chicken) broth
- 5 ounces fresh baby spinach, rinsed and drained well
- Plain Greek yogurt - garnish
- Cilantro - garnish
Take a minute to inspect the dal and rinse them. Place them in a large pot, and cover with water to about 2 or 3 inches above the dal. Add about 1 teaspoon of salt. Bring to a boil, then turn heat to keep a simmer.
Keep an eye on the water as they will absorb quite a bit. When the dal is tender but not soft, drain, rinse, and set aside.
Add coarsely chopped ginger, garlic, and onion to the bowl of your food processor. Pulse until the mixture is pureed.
In a spice grinder (or mortar and pestle), grind coriander, cumin, and fenugreek.
In a heavy dutch oven, heat the oil on high. Add black mustard seeds. Stir with a wooden spoon until the seeds begin to sizzle and pop.
Add pureed ginger, garlic, and onion. Stir until mixture is very fragrant - about 2 to 3 minutes. Be careful to not burn it. Lower heat if necessary.
Add ground spices, Fresno chile (cayenne or dried chile), garam masala, and turmeric. Stir until combined, and you smell the sweetness of the spices cooking - another couple of minutes.
Add cooked dal and broth to the pot. Lower heat to a simmer, and cover. Cook 15-20 minutes to allow flavors to marry.
Add the fresh spinach and more broth if desired. Stir to combine. Cover the pot to wilt the spinach
Check for seasoning.
Serve Chana Dal with Spinach over steamed basmati rice. Garnish with plain Greek yogurt and chopped cilantro.
You can use this basic recipe for other varieties of dal. Adjust the cooking time to achieve tender but not soft. You want to cook the dal to al dente prior to starting the recipe!
*I like fresh Fresno chiles, but they're not always available. 4 or 5 small dried red chiles or 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of cayenne make good substitutions. Remove dried chiles prior to serving.
We like dal thick like stew, but feel free to use more broth if you like it more like a soup.
This recipe freezes and reheats well. The dal may become dry when reheated. Add more broth if necessary.
The nutrition macros include 1/4 cup uncooked brown rice per serving.