Masur dal (the little red-orange one that cooks quickly) is the most common dal used in Sri Lanka, popular with everyone. While there is a wide variety of dals and legumes for sale in the market, the others don’t have as big a role in the cuisine here as they do in India.
This particular version of masur dal is modeled after one that I used to eat almost every day, long ago in a little Tamil restaurant in Kandy. For a light lunch I would stop in and order dal and bread (a not-so-bad loaf of crusty white wheat bread), and then I would dunk pieces of bread in my dal as if it were split pea soup. Even late in the afternoon, or midmorning, I could always count on this particular restaurant to have bread and dal, simple and good.
The only drawback to the restaurant was that it had wooden benches, so early on I learned to always carry a newspaper, and before I sat down, I would first put down my newspaper. Wooden benches in Sri Lanka, like wicker chairs, were often home to a tiny little ant (so tiny I never even managed to see one) that would bite my thighs (sarongs are easy to bite through), and then the bites would swell and swell until three-quarters of the back of my thigh was inflamed. The first time it happened I thought some terrible disaster had befallen me, but everyone around me started to laugh, and then someone told me not to worry. The swelling soon goes down, but it itches. A newspaper works well as prevention.
Put the dal in a medium pot with the water. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to a low simmer, and cook for 20 minutes. Keep warm over low heat.
Heat a wok or karhai or a heavy skillet over medium-high heat, then add the oil. Toss in the garlic and shallots or onion and stir-fry for 2 minutes. Add the curry leaves, red chiles, and ground coriander, mix well, and cook for another 2 minutes. Stir in the salt and coconut milk, then lower the heat and simmer for 5 minutes.
Add the tempering mixture to the hot dal and simmer for a few minutes to blend the flavors. If you prefer a thicker texture, allow the dal to cook for a little longer. Serve hot.
Serve with rice and Fresh Bean Sprout Salad or a green salad or simple cooked green vegetable.
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