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Recipe: To Dal, Daal, Dhal, or Dahl, that is the question

I hate confusing spellings and names. Why the world can’t agree to spell and name everything the way I do, I just don’t know. University was a high point of this, not only can’t the US and UK agree on spellings, they give the same thing different words at times: adrenaline meet epinephrine. Oh! We look the same? Well, you are the same. The very same, but people like to call you different things.  Gah!

It haunts me still in my world of cookery. Sichuan or Szechuan? I’ve seen both in print from reputable sources. What’s haunting me today is the most perplexing of all: Dal, Daal, Dhal, or Dahl? Again, all are online and in print. These last two we can only blame ourselves for. We can’t seem to agree how these words should appear in English. I want someone to tell me! Do you know?

For now, I am sticking with dal, I’ve been told that the correct pronunciation is with a long a. So daaaal could be our new spelling. However you spell it, it’s a great dish. Pulses are so very underrated, and when you add spices and other accoutrements, they absolutely come to life and sing. It’s a fantastic budget dish too and a great illustration of what can be produced with a little time, effort and a lot of love.

There are many versions, and most cooks have their own. I traditionally make a Tarka (also called Tadka) Dal where the pulses are cooked with turmeric with some tempered spices added at the end (these are the tarka). This is a delicious way to do it, the spice flavours are really bold and fresh and the dish is really zingy. Sometimes, when I prefer something a bit more gentle, I add the spices at the start and cook the lentils with them, adding other items like tomatoes and fresh coriander with some lemon at the end. I also like to put a few eggs in for the last ten minutes and serve the dal hot over halved peeled boiled eggs.

Gorgeous blossoms in the garden

Gorgeous blossoms in the garden

A vegetarian friend was visiting in advance of her move to India. We were going to eat in the sunny back garden and I couldn’t think of anything more appropriate to cook. Golden yellow dal with sunny egg yolks peeping out from behind chunks of red tomato and flecks of green coriander, begging to be eaten, as we basked in the sun under the lovely blossoms.

Recipe notes: The chana dal can also be bought as yellow split peas. They’re my favourite for dal as they have a lovely texture and retain their shape. Some people soak them, but there’s no need, unlike other pulses they won’t poison you, they will just take longer to cook (about 35/40 minutes, depending on their freshness). I added the tomatoes before the end as I had spashed out on some delicious English heritage tomatoes that were big, juicy and meaty, and I wanted to retain that flavour & texture in the dal, and not have them become mushy with longer cooking. If you can’t get tomatoes like this, I would recommend getting some small juicy tomatoes, if you can only get water bombs, add them earlier but try not to use them – they’re awful.

A note on the spices. You get much superior flavour from fresh whole spices that you toast and then grind. It seems like a lot of effort, but it’s not really and the return for that little bit of time and effort in flavour makes it a great trade. Try it – I am sure that you will agree.

Gorgeous blossoms in the garden

Gorgeous blossoms in the garden

Dal Recipe – makes enough for 4

Ingredients

500g Chana Dal
2 red chillis, finely chopped (enough for a bit of a kick – use one if you want mild)
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 inch ginger, peeled and finely chopped
1 tbsp cumin seeds
1 tbsp coriander seed
I tbsp turmeric
2 big tomatoes, peeled, deseeded and chopped or a handful of small ones, diced
1 tbsp red pepper flakes (optional)
a handful of coriander leaves, chopped (best to chop jyst before you serve for colour and freshness)
a fresh lemon
one egg per person – the best you can afford, I like Old Cotswold Legbar which have a gorgeous big yolk. Burford Browns are good too.
sea salt

Method:

Dry roast the coriander and cumin seeds for 30 seconds or so over a high heat in a dry frying pan to release the oils and therefore the flavours. Once you can smell the spices, they’re ready to grind, take care not to burn them. Grind them to a powder using a pestle and mortar (my preference) otr electric spice grinder.

Fry the garlic, chilli and ginger in some light oil (groundnut or sunflower work) for a minute or so, taking care not to burn the garlic as it will become bitter. Add the ground spices and fry for a further minute.

Add the chana dal, turmeric, red pepper if you’re using it and enough water to cover the chana dal with an inch to spare. Bring to the boil and cook for 25 minutes at a lower heat ensuring that it cooks at that tenperature but doesn’t explode all over your hob! Add water if it looks like it’s getting dry.

Add the tomatoes and your eggs and cook for a further ten minutes. If the dal is cooked it will be tender, it may need another few minutes if it’s a little old.

Add the coriander and a tablespoon of fresh lemon juice. Season with salt to taste. Serve the dal over the boiled eggs, shelled and halved.

Enjoy!

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I like food. I like to make food. Eat food. Photograph food. Write about food. Mainly in London but when I am lucky or organised further afield.

20 Comments

    • So lovely! Although I’ve just moved to a much smaller place with no garden. Lots of lovely parks nearby though.

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  1. Heheh, I do know what you mean about the frustration of English language spellings for Asian words, but remember that the alphabets are completely different so the various spellings are simply different approximations of the original language names… a lot of the differences in the UK come from immigrant restaurateurs just making up a spelling on their menus… very confusing!

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    • Oh I know, we have the same issues with irish spellings (we have our own alphabet too – although it’s been anglicised now). I guess it adds to the character.

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  2. I’m not sure how you spell it either, but in our family we have it for breakfast with toasted bread (baguette is best). Yum!

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  3. Dal is what the Indians call it. Glad you agree:) It looks gorgeous I must admit. Chana Dal gives a thick consistency to the dish as well. Perfect to dunk some bread in with. Yum!
    Cant beat eating something like this on a sunny day.

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  4. Haha I went through the same spelling dillema at the weekend myself, will have to have a look at this tonight as I can’t see the pictures at work sadly, the addition of eggs sounds great as well. Your recipe definitely sounds a little bit more authentic than mine from Sunday as well

    http://tinyurl.com/32228fx

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      • Tried out some of the left over Dal from the freezer with egg last night and was amazed. It works so well, just lightly boiled the eggs so yolk was still lush and soft. The textural difference is really good. My eyes were opened so ta for the idea!

  5. Dal or Dhal for me.

    Dahl implies Roald and Willy Wonka or Tales of the Unexpected to me!

    However you spell it I love d(h)al!

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  6. The spelling variations in Indian food names come from different regional languages. So, you will face this problem for most of Indian dishes.
    Putting the Hindi word phonetically in English, dal is the best way to spell it (d is pronounced softly as in Spanish).
    All Indian languages stress on phonetic way of writing, so you spell a word the way you pronounce it. However, the British Sanskrit scholars in the 19th century essentially set the rules for tranliteration of Indian languages in English, so instead of daal in India you would spell it as dal and pronounce it as daal.
    Coming to dhal, you will find this version of spelling only in Bangladeshi or Bengali resturants. That’s because they use a stronger pronounciation of d, in this case the harsh ‘d’ sound that goes with words like dart, denounce or dad in English.
    The fourth version – dahl – is something I have never encountered, but I guess it must be floating around on many menus.

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  7. Nice looking recipe, and yes chana (or channa – another choice thing?) is a lovely dal.

    I am pretty sure chana are chickpeas though, not split peas?

    The split ones (split yellow gram) are chickpeas without their skins then split the same way that we split yellow peas, and make a really delicious chana massala.

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  8. I love that particularly bite that split peas bring. What a glorious picture. I could do with a bowl of that right now.

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  9. I love daaal. Loving your egg-way of serving it kedgeree sort of style.

    My favourite to make is a Sri Lankan influenced one with cinnamon, ridiculous amounts of garlic and coconut milk.

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  10. You, Maunika and sk are all correct. It’s dal – Indian d (plosive rather than English alveolar) and long a.

    It’s hard to tell whether the variant spelling dhall is trying to convey that the Hindi plosive d is softer than an English alveolar or that Bengali dal has a retroflex rather than plosive d. Either way, it confuses with the Indian aspirate series (dh as in dharma) and is best avoided. You can find “dhal” in old British memoirs and even the classic “Anglo-Indian” glossary Hobson-Jobson (under “Dhall, Doll”). sk may be right to suggest that the more modern wave of restaurant menu “dhals” is owed to Bengali. Post-war Indian eating out in Britain was pioneered by ex-merchant seamen from Sylhet District in Bangladesh, much as Italian by Sicilians, and menu spelling followed its own inspiration.

    Derek Davis

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