Tarka Dal for comfortAutumn rushes in and the Epicurean makes comfort food. Indian style
As the autumn weather takes firm hold of Groningen and the colours around the city change to mellow golden yellows and burnt amber reds, I start craving warmth and comfort. Cosy evenings at home, music in the background and a rich dal cooking on the stove. This is my favourite way of cooking dal, a wide selection of popular Indian dishes featuring dried pulses of all colours and types. The tarka is the final stage of the dish, when spices and seasonings are toasted in hot butter until they are fragrant. They are then poured over the dal. It is a very good dish with which to build your spice collection, as it is otherwise very cheap (the lentils or split peas can be bought at Amazing Oriental or at most toko shops for next to nothing). I highly recommend the spice stand in Vismarkt, but you can find good spices at all oriental stores and many supermarkets too.
Start by placing a large pan over a medium heat. Add the oil, onion and salt, and cook them over a medium-low heat for 10-15 minutes, until the onion is very soft and slightly sweet. Turn the heat up slightly and add the mustard seeds, which will start popping after a few minutes. When you hear them pop, add the ginger, garlic, chili pepper, paprika, cumin and turmeric (which give a beautiful colour to the dish. Beware, though – it stains clothes just as easily!).
Cook for a minute to allow the spices to release their oils and aromas. Add the tomato paste, cooking it off for a little bit so that its colour and taste deepen. Add the lentils, diced tomatoes and water. The amount of water depends on the type of pulses you use and how wet you want the dal to be in the end, so I suggest starting with 800ml of it and adding a bit more as desired. Just don’t let the dal dry out during cooking. Let the mixture come to the boil and then turn the heat down so that it bubbles steadily, but not aggressively.
The lentils should turn soft and creamy after 30-40 minutes, which is when I typically take the pan off the heat, as I like the lentils to keep some of their texture. If you prefer an even creamier dal (or if you use split peas, which take longer to cook), you can cook it longer, for up to an hour and a half. Just make sure the dal does not dry out.
When you are happy with the texture, flavour the dish with salt (if necessary) and some lemon juice (you probably won’t use a whole lemon, though). Serve the dal in individual bowls. Finally, heat the butter in a small saucepan until the foaming subsides and add the cayenne pepper and garam masala (a mixture of spices which varies from one region of the Indian subcontinent to the next). Wait for a few seconds, until the spices are warm and fragrant, and pour the tarka over the dal. Sprinkle the chopped coriander leaves generously over the dish and serve it with plain, boiled basmati rice or naan bread. It’s the perfect comfort food for the autumn.
photo: Jeroen van Kooten
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