Today on the menu is spicy, warming chana dal lentil curry – nothing more than a pot of long-simmered, seasoned lentils, but so, so much more.
Chana dal, or Bengal gram as they are also known, are incredibly good for you, with one of the lowest ratings of any food on the glycemic index. This means when you eat them there is almost no effect at all on your blood sugar levels. Great for diabetics, but also for the rest of us who are keen to add foods to their diet that reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes – one of the truly horrifying consequences of the modern, processed diet.
The staple poor-person’s food of south Asia, chana dal is cheap, simple, healthy and absolutely delicious. It can be flavoured with all manner of spices, but here the simple seasonings of fresh ginger, caramelised garlic and turmeric are sufficient to make the chana dal – actually a kind of chickpea – taste fantastic.
When using turmeric, as I do in this recipe, I make sure to season the dish with plenty of black pepper as well, although it is not key to the flavour of this dish. This is not just because I feel that every dish in the world can be lifted with a dusting of freshly ground peppercorns, but also because the alkaloid piperine – which makes pepper spicy – enhances the absorption of curcumin by 2000%. Curcumin is a compound contained in turmeric, with very powerful anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant properties. So this combination is not only super-tasty, it’s also much healthier than consuming these spices independently.
Chana dal need not be made spicy at all, but I couldn’t resist adding some chilli. As ever, the chillies I have used in this dish come from my favourite chilli emporium, Chillies on the Web. And as always these gloriously fresh, fragrant dried chillies lifted the whole dish, not only with tingly heat, but also with beautiful layered chilli flavour. Although not quite regionally authentic, I used Burmese amber nectar dried chillies, Ugandan birdseye dried chillies and a spoonful of Peruvian aji panca chilli powder and all three were lovely.
The other spices pictured above, cumin seeds and brown mustard seeds, I used to flavour the shallot topping I added to the dish. A frequently used spicy seasoning for chana dal, shallots or onions are browned in spiced oil and either stirred through the lentils or strewn on top.
This recipe also offers me the opportunity to share with you my top tip for the tedious and awkward job of peeling ginger. The very best tool for this is a tablespoon. The edge of the spoon easily scrapes off just enough skin to cleanly prepare the ginger, without sacrificing any of the juicy root. The shape of it also enables you to easily get around the lumps and bumps that are always an issue with ginger. If you haven’t tried this before, I think you’ll be impressed.
I always use fresh, crushed garlic when preparing this dish, added near the beginning of cooking, but a visit to a south Indian restaurant near my parent’s house in Tooting, south London turned me onto yet another manipulation of this marvellous allium which I also add towards the end.
Thin slivers of garlic are first cooked in a little hot oil until very well browned, but not burnt. This process gives both the garlic and the oil a remarkable taste, which when stirred into the dal at the end adds an extra layer of gorgeous flavour that stands up to the chilli, spice and tasty legumes.
Poached eggs are absolutely not a typical addition to chana dal, but they are one I strongly encourage you to explore (unless you are vegan of course – this dish is perfectly satisfying without them!). The discovery that eggs go so well with chana dal was the final push I needed to include this wonderful meal in my breakfast repertoire. Not everyone is happy to eat a hot, spicy breakfast, but I am a definite convert! Both the dal and eggs are pretty soft, so for textural contrast you may like to layer them on a slice of whole grain toast, but this is very much optional.
More traditionally, you can serve this dish as part of a flavour-packed south Asian spread, with rice or some kind of flatbread and perhaps another curry for variety. A common addition to the various dals that form a solid part of this region’s cuisines is spinach, so feel free to add some of that if you have it fresh or in your freezer. There is no need to cook it before hand as the dried legumes will be cooked in plenty of water anyway – just add it about half an hour before the end of cooking to give it a chance to wilt or defrost as applicable and cook through before serving.
Warming and comforting, spicy with many layers of remarkable flavour. All that and healthy nutrition in a bowl. Did I mention that it freezes and reheats superbly?
Chana dal lentil curry
chana dal curry
- 2 cups dried chana dal soaked for at least an hour
- 4 inch length of ginger peeled and cut into 4 pieces
- 1 tbsp dried turmeric
- 5-10 dried chillies to taste/depending on your chillies
- 6 cloves garlic crushed
- 3 cloves garlic thinly sliced
- 2 tbsp oil (I used cold-pressed rapeseed)
- salt to taste
- plenty of freshly ground black pepper
- 2 tbsp oil I used cold-pressed rapeseed
- 1 tbsp cumin seeds
- 1 tsp brown mustard seeds
- 10 small round shallots or similar thinly sliced
- poached eggs (optional)
- slices whole grain sourdough bread (optional)
- handful fresh coriander
- dollops of Greek/Turkish yoghurt
for the dal
- Add the drained chana dal to a large saucepan with 8 cups/1800ml water. Bring to the boil over high heat, skimming the foam as it appears - this is important as the foam can make the dish bitter. When the water has stopped producing foam, reduce the heat to maintain a low simmer, crumble in the chillies and add the ginger pieces, crushed garlic and turmeric. Simmer for around two hours. You may need to stir occasionally as it thickens, but for the most part you can leave this to cook gently and get on with something else. When the dal is cooked and creamy, check the consistency - you can add more water or reduce the dal further as you prefer. Salt to taste (it will probably need a couple of teaspoons) and add plenty of freshly ground black pepper.
for the shallots
- When the dal is ready to eat, heat the oil over medium-high heat in a frying pan or skillet. Add the cumin and mustard seeds. When they begin to pop, add the sliced shallots. Cook, stirring frequently, until the shallots are well browned. You are frying the shallots here, rather than softening or caramelising them.
- Poach the eggs, if using (see my technique for perfectly poached eggs here). Toast the bread, if using. Just before the eggs are done, add a piece of toast to a wide bowl or plate (one per person) and ladle over the dal. Top with a poached egg, a sprinkle of fresh coriander and add a dollop of thick yoghurt on the side.
Dal will keep for about a week in the fridge - just reheat in a saucepan, perhaps with a little splash of water to loosen. It also freezes very successfully.