Cooking dhal: In praise of the humble pulse

Dhal, the benevolent soupy lentil dish, can refer to both the food and the pulse. It is a dish of boiled, spiced lentils and in some cases they break down into a soup; in others, they remain more or less whole. The spices can include, but are not limited to, cumin, ginger, garlic, turmeric and paprika. There is also often some tomato and onion, and lemon juice, which adds a sour note and balances the creaminess of the legumes.

The end result, depending on the myriad recipes, should be slightly soupy, slightly sour, sweet and salty, all at the same time. You may also want to add a pinch of the foul smelling asafoetida, which is said to ease flatulence.

It can be served at the Hindu ceremony Annaprashan, along with rice and ghee, during which a baby is introduced to its first solid food. Well-cooked dhal and rice is also often prescribed as a dish for the ill or convalescent.

Before you start, pour the pulses on to a flat plate and check for stones. I haven’t found one for a few years, but the memory of a shattered tooth is still with me. Then pour them into a deep pot with cold water and rub them to loosen the dirt. Do this a few times until the water is more or less clean.

Kripal Singh, the chef de partie at Swad, the Indian restaurant in Melrose Arch, Johannesburg, can make dhal with his eyes closed. He says his family in Delhi make dhal every day. In the morning at the restaurant he cooks up a big pot of oil dhal. Oil dhal is actually called toor dhal, or split pigeon peas. The oil is to preserve the legume, which you wash off before cooking.

A delicious bowl of dhal
When an order for dhal handi comes in, he’ll put a frying pan on the flame (this is a restaurant and he’s a professional, so the flame is fierce — at home, use medium heat) and add a few tablespoons of vegetable oil and then a pinch of jeera seeds, half a teaspoon of chopped garlic, and a pinch of mustard seeds. He stirs, shaking the pan, and says you could add a few curry leaves at this point if you feel like it. He then adds a couple of tablespoons of chopped onion, a pinch of turmeric, and the same of chili powder; another shake of the pan, and a few tablespoons of chopped tomatoes and a pinch of salt.

The sauce is now starting to turn a healthy yellow colour and thicken up nicely, and he continues to stir and mix for a minute or two. Then, turning to the large pot of dhal, he ladles in a few cups, and a little less than a cup of water, and the dhal is constituted. For a little more heat, he adds another pinch of chili powder, and then some chopped dhania and a squeeze of lemon.

Singh hands me a bowl of the deep yellow dhal. It has a well-rounded taste, with lemony overtones; every now and again you crunch through an earthy cumin seed. It’s delicious, and I work my way though the whole bowl in a couple of minutes.

For a richer dhal, Singh says he will work in a spoon or two of ghee — if you order it — and if you’re not feeling all that well, he’ll also make you a thinner version.

A meal that will treat you kindly
The restaurant also makes an excellent makhni (butter) dhal. I’ve made this at home in the past, and finally sat down to eat well after midnight, not taking into account the lengthy cooking time of the small, black urad dhal.

Singh says he soaks this dhal along with kidney beans for about four hours, and then, just before he closes the kitchen, will pour a bag of charcoal into the tandoori oven and set a pot of the dhal over the slow flame to simmer overnight. The next day, when someone orders, he’ll fry chilli powder, ginger and garlic paste in a little oil in a small frying pan, and then add a ladle or two of urad dhal. Then the butter goes in, with a little cream, tomato purée and salt.

For a crowd, there’s a dhal recipe for 200 in South Africa’s famous red Indian Delights book edited by Zuleikha Mayat. It calls for, among other things, 6kg oil dhal, 10kg of leg or chicken and 2kg of onions.

It is, as Singh says, “a little soupy kind of thing”, and will treat you kindly all of your days.

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