Living the Good Life…

My food blog & cookbook in progress

Simple Daals

Dedication: Of all my friends, no one has enjoyed the many guises of daal more thoroughly than my friend Jane Pederson, who, along with her husband Ron Mickel, so kindly opened their hearth and hearts to me when I was leaving Eau Claire in July 2007. She even suggested a book dedicated to this topic alone. Rather than wait until I get to that project, I dedicate this page and its recipes to Jane and my memories of cooking in her wonderful kitchen.

The basic daal recipe is so simple that it’s almost ludicrous to put it down. That said however, I can vouch for the fact that there are so many variations that you can go through the same motions every day for a week of Sundays (I’ve always wanted to use that expression) and still have something different on the table each time, simply by varying the type of daal and the specific seasoning spice. Here is the basic technique and some suggestions for variations:

Wash one cup of any daal* of your choice. Add about twice the quantity of water and cook till softened*, with a pinch of salt*, turmeric (haldi), chilly powder, a tiny bit of butter or ghee* and a pinch of asafoetida (hing)*. Depending on availability and your mood, you may add a bay leaf, or a piece of ginger (or even just the peel of ginger) to the daal while it is cooking. You may also add 1 or 2 whole dried chillies in lieu of chilly powder. When the daal is done done, fish out the whole spices, if any, and discard. Add the tadka (seasoning) and let simmer for a few more minutes. Garnish with chopped cilantro if need be. Serve hot with rice or rotis.


(i) Virtually all daals benefit from soaking prior to cooking. This is especially important for the whole beans including rajma, chana, moong, and urad, which should be washed and soaked for several hours before cooking. Dehusked and washed daals like masoor and moong need no prior preparation while toor and chana daals should certainly be soaked. Any whole daal, as well as chana daal lend themselves very well to crockpot cooking or to the pressure cooker, which is a fixture in most Indian kitchens.

(ii) The standard method for cooking daals in an open pot is to add about 2-2½ times the amount of water as daal, bring to a boil for a few minutes and then turn down to a simmer until it is done. When cooking daal this way, skim away the scum as it forms during the early stages of cooking.

(iii) I once read somewhere that cooking whole beans like rajma and chole with salt toughens their skins. Ever since I have avoided adding salt to these daals at first boil, and wait until I‘m preparing the seasoning.

(iv) Ghee or clarified butter is a form of fat that I always thought was used exclusively by Indians, though I’m learning otherwise now. I often replace it with butter in most recipes but it is easy enough to make. Simply heat butter in a heavy pan until it is all melted and heat until it stops bubbling has become thicker in consistency. You will find that some milk solids have separated out at the bottom. Cool slightly and filter the fat into a bottle. When it solidifies you will see that it has lost most of the opacity that characterizes butter and has a translucent look with a grainier texture than butter.

(v) Asafoetida is a very strong spice that should be used very, very sparingly. I believe the smell is quite nasty until you drop it in hot oil and then it makes the food quite fragrant (go figure!) Following my Mom’s advice, I do not use asafoetida as a seasoning spice along with onions or garlic, as the flavors tend to cancel each other out, but I always add a very small pinch to daal as it’s cooking because it appears to help them cook better. Some people dislike asafetida so much that I would advise them to omit it altogether. In terms of amounts, the rule of thumb I once heard is that a pin-head’s worth is equivalent to several cloves of garlic! To the smelling-enabled folk I always say, “use your own judgment.”

Some suggestions for seasoning daals:

1. Jeere ka tadka

I think this type of seasoning works best for the dehusked daal. Warm about 1-2 tblsp of a combination of butter (or ghee) and oil in a small pan. As the butter melts add 1 tsp or so of whole cumin (jeera) seeds. When you begin to hear the seed crackle or sizzle, add 1-2 dried chillies and a bay leaf (if desired) into the hot mixture and pour the contents over the cooked daal. The chillies and leaves should be fresh from the pantry and not the same ones that you cooked the daal with. The addition of these spices anew refreshes their flavor in the daal.

Other seasonings that may be used in place of cumin are fennel seeds (saunf) and ajwain. The Bengali five-spice mix called panch phoron (see recipe under the masala mixes) is an interesting change.

One friend used to add 1-2 cloves of chopped garlic to the cumin and fry till crunchy before adding it to moong daal. It’s a very nice variation.

2. Ghee ka tadka

Warm a few tblsp of butter or ghee in a small pan – you can be as generous as you wish with the butter for this seasoning mix. Add some cumin seeds and as they begin to sizzle turn the heat off. Then add some salt (to taste) turmeric and chilly powder to the pan, stir gently and pour the contents over the daal. The butter forms a layer over the cooked daal and imparts a heavenly flavor to it. I especially like this tadka over hulled masoor daal.

3. Tomato tadka for moong

Heat 1-2 tblsp of oil in a pan along with a tsp of cumin and mustard seeds (you can use either or both). When the seed begin to sputter add a few slivers of fresh ginger, 1-2 slit green chillies and 1-2 ripe tomatoes chopped into large chunks (eighths). You may also add a few curry leaves to the hot oil if you wish. Stir together and add a pinch of turmeric and some salt. Either pour this mixture into the daal, while it is cooking, or add water to the tomatoes, bring to boil and add the uncooked daal to the tomato mixture and cook till done. Garnish with chopped cilantro (coriander) leaves (if you haven’t used curry leaves).

A variation on this theme I just tried out for the first time, with sour plums instead of tomatoes and using masoor actually since that was what was available here in Egypt. Check out recipe in post.

4. Fried onion tadka for whole daals

Heat some oil in a pan with some cumin or fennel or ajwain seeds till they sizzle. Then add about 1 or 2 onions, thinly sliced lengthwise or in half circles. Fry till crispy and lighly dust with salt and a sprinkling of chilly powder. Add to the cooked daal and allow to simmer briefly for flavors to meld. This goes well with whole masoor or moong.

It was my friend Iram who introduced me (and through me the rest of my family) to the joys of whole masoor daal, something I cannot remember having eaten at home while growing up. She sometimes added sun-dried tomatoes to the seasoning, which gave not only a mild tang but also a very interesting texture to the daal.

5. Mixed daal with five-spice tadka.

Cook together a mixture of chana daal along with one or more of the other hulled daals in roughly equivalent proportions. (When doing this you may need to add the faster cooking daals such as moong and masoor a little later in the process). Add turmeric, salt, chilly powder, and a piece of ginger while cooking. Cook this mixture of daals until the grains are very soft and the water is all but boiled away. Fish out the ginger and lightly mash together with the back of spoon. Add some more water and simmer this daal with some amchur (dried mango powder). In a small saucepan heat some oil with 1-2 tsp of the panch phoron mix. When the seeds begin to crackle and pop, turn off the heat and add 1 or 2 dried red chillies, stir briefly and pour the entire mixture over the daal. Allow time for flavors to meld before serving.

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