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The Dals of Punjab


If your knowledge of Punjabi cuisine comes from visits to dhabas and 'North Indian' restaurants, you can be excused for thinking that dal makhani is the only lentil dish eaten in Punjab. Made with whole black gram and laden with butter and spices, the delicious dal makhani is in fact a special occasion treat. Also, because it is tedious and takes a long time to cook, even Punjabis prefer getting a takeout of dal makhani from one of the many neighbourhood dhabas.

Also, the toor dal or arhar dal, a pulse that most of India (I'm thinking of you Gujarat, Maharashtra and UP) eats every day has no place in Punjabi cooking. My parents didn't even know such a thing existed until the first 'South Indian Dosa' place opened up in the 1980s and starting serving sambhar.

So what lentils do we cook then? A whole variety of them. In my home, where a lentil dish is cooked for dinner pretty much every day, the options range from the 'light' moong dal to both red and brown lentils. But our favourite dal is this combination of yellow split peas (chana dal) and split urad dal. It comes in two avatars that my brother and I dubbed yellow-white dal and black-yellow dal growing up. The first one is a combination of split peas with split and peeled urad dal (hence white). The second one has the same chana dal but uses split urad dal with its husk intact (hence black).

To make my family's favourite yellow-white dal, mix 1/2 cup each of chana dal and white urad dal. Wash thoroughly, then put in a pressure cooker with 4 cups of water, 1 tsp turmeric powder, 1 tsp red chilli powder and salt to taste. Cook for 6-7 whistles until the dal is soft and cooked through but you can still see individual grains. You need the consistency of a thick soup so if the dal appears too watery, put the pan back on heat and boil until the excess water dries off. You can now set the dal aside until you are ready to eat.

Just before eating, temper the dal. Chop 1 onion finely. Heat 1 tbsp ghee in a small pan. Add 1 tsp cumin seeds and wait until they start to splutter. Add the chopped onion and stir fry until the onion turns golden. Pour the tempering into the dal, stir to mix and sprinkle garam masala and optionally, finely chopped coriander leaves to garnish.

If you are making black-yellow dal, follow exactly the same process but change the mix to 3/4 cup chana dal and 1/4 cup split urad dal.

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