Dal Chawal (Seema's Indian lentils and rice)

My neighbor let me into her kitchen, and this is the recipe I left with

Published December 12, 2009 1:11AM (EST)

"Dal chawal is the most traditional Indian food," my neighbor Seema said. I nodded, noting that rice-and-bean dishes are prevalent in many cultures because our bodies can only absorb their proteins when eaten together. "I thought it was just because it tastes good," she said.

And how could I disagree with that? Because Seema's dal chawal tastes really good -- her rice is fragrant and rich, her soupy lentils are warm and glowing with spices, a little too exciting to be soothing. She's not a chef or a master cook; she's just a working mom with a penchant for dishes like this, which she can make quickly before her daughter comes home from school. But a watchful eye and a megaton of garlic make this dish something I've been craving for weeks.

(To my dal-less friends: if you don't have a South Asian market near you, "Modern Spice" author Monica Bhide recommends Indian Foods Co. or just plain ol' Amazon.)

Seema's Dal Chawal (Indian lentils and rice)
Makes enough for a mother, a young daughter, and a guest
Active time: 20 minutes. Start to finish (including soaking): 1.5 hours 

For the lentils

½ cup masoor dal, tiny split "red" lentils (really the color of orange soda)
5 cups water
1 teaspoon salt (for dal)
5 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 teaspoon black mustard seeds
1 teaspoon whole cumin seeds
7 cloves garlic, cut slightly smaller than pea-size
Dash of asafetida (also called hing)
6 (or to taste) mean hot chilies, short and green, halved lengthwise
½ teaspoon turmeric powder
½ teaspoon salt (for spice mix)
½ cup chopped cilantro (about ¼ bunch, stems partially removed)

  1. Soak the dal in cold water for 45 minutes to an hour. "You soak the dal to get rid of the starch, or it'll be sticky," Seema says, scrunching her face in displeasure. Now would be a good time to get your rice washed and soaking (see below).
  2. Drain the dal, give it a quick rinse, and bring it to a boil with the 5 cups water and the 1 teaspoon salt. Skim the foam off the top if you want. (I do out of habit, Seema doesn't. It doesn't taste like much.) Turn it down to a moderate bubble and cover, leaving a crack for evaporation. (The amount of water doesn't actually matter, Seema says, because if it's too loose for you, you can always just uncover it and let it reduce, and if it's too thick, you can just add more water.) Take a peek once in a while to make sure it's not bubbling violently, but pretty much you can just hang out for about 40 minutes, uncovering it for the last 10. Give your mom a call. She misses you.
  3. Check on the dal, which by now will have lost its Sunkist sparkle and be a mustardy yellow. If most of the lentils have dissolved and you're looking at a loose soup roughly the texture of a thin batter, get ready to make your entire house smell amazing.
  4. In a heavy-bottom pan, get the oil hot enough over medium-high heat so that it just barely shimmers and flows as quickly as water. Add the black mustard seeds. When you start hearing them pop, add the cumin. As it sizzles, add the garlic and swirl the pan to coat it in the oil. Seema says, "I like it when the garlic cooks slow," which toasts it evenly, bringing out its sweet notes without burning it. She does this by lifting her pan half a foot above her flame and swirls it, but you can just turn your heat down a little and stir, until the hissing turns into a slow sizzle. Cook it until it turns even golden brown, and you begin to wonder if you're going to smell like this food for the rest of your life.
  5. Once the garlic is ready, add a few dashes of asafetida. Note that the name of this spice contains the word "fetid." That's not a mistake. It stinks like brimstone. But when you cook it in hot oil, the funk disappears and leaves a mellow, oniony flavor that accents the garlic and undergirds all the spices. So use it! Just bear with it for a second. Then add the chilies until they wilt, the turmeric, the ½ teaspoon salt and cilantro.
  6. When the cilantro is wilted, dump everything in the pan into the dal. Seema likes to make sure it all gets in there by actually dunking her pan into the pot, but unless your pans are scrupulously clean on the bottom, maybe just use your spoon. "Now turn up the heat and boil it together so it looks like one," she says, pointing toward the slicks of oil floating to the top. I gear up in my head an explanation about emulsification, the starch helping to bind the oil and water as the oil slicks start to disappear, but then she says, "See, it thickens it a bit, too." And I realize there's nothing more that need be said about that.

For the rice

1 cup basmati rice
2¼ cups water for cooking
½ teaspoon whole cumin seeds
1 teaspoon ghee or butter
½ teaspoon salt

  1. Wash the rice by soaking it in a big bowl of cold water and swirling it with your hands. The water will cloud with starch. Pour it off and repeat until the water is clear, around five or six times. Now drain the rice well -- using a strainer -- and soak it in the cooking water for at least 30 minutes and up to 2 hours.
  2. Pour the rice soaking water into the rice cooker and turn on. When it's boiling, add the rice, salt, and ghee or butter. Put cumin seeds into the palm of your hand, and with the heel of the other, crush them into the rice lightly, as if wringing your hands with worry. But don't worry. This is going to be great. Cover and let the rice cooker do its magic.
  3. If you don't have a rice cooker, reduce the water to 1¾ cups. Boil the water in a heavy oven-safe pot with a tight-fitting lid. Add the rice, salt, ghee and cumin as above, and bring back to a boil. Cover and pop into a 300-degree oven for 10 minutes, then take out and fluff lightly. (By the way, for Luddites and other rice-cooker-free folk, cooking rice in the oven really is the way to go. For more on that, look here.)

To serve

Mound the rice into a bowl or plate, and spoon the dal over it. I like to have enough dal to sauce the rice but still be dry enough to eat with the hands, which you do by holding your fingertips together to form a beak, pulling your thumb back toward the palm. With a twist-and-scoop motion, pick up a bite with the fingertips, the rice resting now on your upturned fingers, and use your thumb to push it into your mouth. Some people can do this with utmost grace. I usually resort to a spoon halfway through dinner.

By Francis Lam

Francis Lam is Features Editor at Gilt Taste, provides color commentary for the Cooking Channel show Food(ography), and tweets at @francis_lam.

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