Mountain Dal

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In Nepal, even more than in South India, rice and lentils rule. Dal bhat (lentils and rice) is eaten every day, several times a day, over and over again. It commonly comes served with a vegetable dish (known as takari or sabzi), but it’s the rice and lentils that are essential. The rice is generally good, and there are hundreds of different versions of dal. Most, like the recipe here, are relatively simple and not overly spiced.

Most foreigners first encounter dal bhat when they go trekking, or go for a stay in a smaller town or village, for in Kathmandu there are lots of European-style food places geared for tourists. There are bakeries, and pizzas baked in wood-fired ovens, not to mention well-stocked supermarkets, with row after row of treats imported from abroad. Almost everyone likes dal bhat (there is nothing not to like), but the thought of eating rice and dal over and over again doesn’t sound so appealing. Then time goes by, and with every day that passes, dal bhat tastes better and better. After a while, just as for Nepalis, dal bhat becomes the meal of choice.

And then back in Kathmandu: “Where can I find dal bhat?”

This Nepali dal has a good deep taste. We call for split mung (yellow) dal, but you could instead use masur (red) dal, which cooks even more quickly. The dish smells clovey when cooking, but the cloves back off in the final taste and blend happily into the cinnamon, coriander, cumin, and cardamom. If made with split mung, it has an appealing creamy texture.

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Ingredients

  • 1 cup mung dal (see headnote), washed and drained
  • 5 to 6 cups water
  • ½ teaspoon turmeric
  • 1 teaspoon salt

Tempering

  • 2 to 3 dried red chiles, stemmed
  • 1 teaspoon coriander seeds
  • ½ teaspoon cumin seeds
  • 3 cloves
  • One 1-inch piece cinnamon or cassia stick
  • Seeds from 2 green cardamom pods
  • 5 or 6 black peppercorns
  • 1 tablespoon mustard oil or vegetable oil 1 cup finely chopped onion

Method

Put the dal into a large pot with 5 cups water and the turmeric and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to maintain a strong simmer, partially cover, and cook for 30 to 40 minutes, until the dal is almost mushy. For a more liquid texture, add another ½ to 1 cup water.

Meanwhile, using a mortar and a pestle or a spice/coffee grinder, grind together the chiles, coriander, cumin, cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, and pepper. Set aside.

When the dal has finished cooking, add the salt and stir, then lower the heat to very low to keep it warm.

Heat a wok or karhai or a cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. Add the oil, then the finely chopped onion, and stir-fry for 5 minutes. Add the ground spice blend and stir-fry for 1 to 2 more minutes, then transfer to the pot of dal.

Stir the dal well and cook for about 10 minutes, then serve hot.

Serve with rice or Chapatis, or both. Accompany with Nepali Green Bean–Sesame Salad or another vegetable side dish.

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