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Perfect Chana Dal with Golden Raisins

Introducing a new occasional column, Indian Feast, where I’ll slowly tackle staples of Indian cooking right here in my kitchen.

I recently received an email from a reader (hi, Deborah!) about curry. She said she’d been on a kick lately, and wanted to know if I had any recipes to share.

It’s strange and wonderful when I get emails from you and realize we are on precisely the same page.  Over my years of cooking, I’ve managed to make Vietnamese pho, real phat Thai, 30-ingredient mole negro, and more. But Indian food — the kind you eat in restaurants: silky, smooth, and generously spicy — continues to elude me. But now, after a few fits and starts, I’ve been tearing through lentils and rice like no one’s business, trying to finally find recipes and formulas that will bring my favorite Indian staples within reach at home. The more successful I am, the more recipes I’ll be sharing. Wish me luck. Shall we begin?

We start with dal, because it’s dal. It is the staple of Indian meals, and if I can’t make that, well, I might as well just quit right now. But I can! I can. In the past couple of months, I’ve made two dal recipes that blow the rest out of the water. One is for a straight-up traditional dal makhani, still one of my favorite things to order at Indian restaurants. But the one I’m sharing today is made with chana dal, yellow split peas – and for those concerned with authenticity, avert your eyes: we’re going modern.

The recipe comes by way of Nicholas Day, who writes a wonderful column on Food52 called Dinner vs. Child. I don’t have any kids, but I feel that I, ahem, share parents’ struggle to get their kids to eat healthy food. I’ve been tuning into Nicholas’ column, and this recipe has been in the regular rotation ever since he posted it. It’s adapted from 660 curries, a book I don’t know but think I might need. This curry is delightful. It is spicy (if you want it to be), sweet, smooth and creamy. Unlike so many dal dishes I’ve had, where all the flavors are muddled into a big slop, this one is clean and rich and fragrant, and every bite tastes slightly different. It’s really, really good.

Incidentally, even D didn’t hate it. I told you this recipe’s a keeper.

As if you need one more excuse to make this, I didn’t even tell you the best part, which is that this dal sort of comes with its own chutney. That’s because of the prep method: dal cooked separately; tomatoes and cumin sauced into deliciousness; onions, raisins, and more, cooked and reduced into an ultra-flavorful sauce; sauce folded into dal before serving. Bottom line? All you need to enjoy this dish is a bowl and a spoon. Rice and raita or even plain yogurt are good additions, but they aren’t essential.

Yes, you can read this now and have homemade Indian food for dinner tonight.

And just to make sure you come back for chapter 2, I’ll say it right now: I’m teaching you how to make really, really good dosa at home. Stay tuned.

Perfect Chana Dal with Golden Raisins
Adapted from Nicholas Day on Food52, who adapted it from 660 Curries

1 cup chana dal (yellow split peas)
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
3 tablespoons ghee or olive oil
2 medium-large red onions, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced
1/2 cup golden raisins (can substitute currants)
3 bay leaves
2 teaspoons cumin seeds
2-inch nub of ginger, minced or grated
2 large or 3 medium cloves garlic, minced
1 1/2 cups chopped tomato (can be canned)
3 serrano chiles, seeds and membrane removed, minced
1 1/2 teaspoons salt (unless using salted canned tomatoes, in which case use only 1 teaspoon and taste before adding it all)
1 teaspoon garam masala

Put split peas in a medium-large pot, and rinse in several changes of water until the water runs clear. Drain. Add three cups of water and turmeric, and bring to a boil. Skim foam, reduce the heat, and simmer the peas uncovered until cooked but still firm, about 25 minutes (longer if peas are old).

Add two cups water and simmer until tender, approximately 15 more minutes.

In the meantime, heat 2 tablespoons ghee or olive oil in a large pan set over high heat. Add onion, raisins, and bay leaves, and cook for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the onions look almost fried. Transfer to a bowl.

Heat 1 tablespoon ghee or olive oil in the same pan and turn heat to medium. Add cumin seeds and cook just until they sizzle, which will be almost immediately. Add ginger and garlic and cook for a minute, stirring.

Add tomato, chiles, salt, garam masala, and 1 cup water. Scrape all the good bits off the bottom of the pan.

When the peas are tender, add most of the tomato mixture to the peas and simmer, uncovered, for another 15 minutes or so, until the tastes meld. I like to reserve a good 1/4 cup of the tomato mixture to serve over the finished dish.

To serve, spoon dal into bowls and top with a bit of the tomato mixture and a spoonful of the onion-raisin mixture. Eat immediately.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Stephanie October 19, 2012,

    I’m on your page too! Totally psyched about the “Indian Feast” column–can’t wait to learn and experiment.

  • Liz Rueven October 20, 2012,

    Keep on keepin’on with the Indian theme. I also have a regular hankering for these bold flavors. Can’t wait to start by cooking this chana dal. Lovely photos, too!

  • Ginger October 24, 2012,

    I just made this–and it was way too spicy for me 🙁 I dig the blog, though!

    • rivka October 27, 2012,

      Oh, no! Sorry Ginger – just cut the chilies next time and you should be ok. How was the flavor?

  • Deborah October 29, 2012,

    Thanks for the shout-out! And more important, thanks for the recipes!! Definitely going to try this one. Love, love, love dal (ok, anything Indian-flavored) and still haven’t had the courage to attempt. Tonight I’m going for a potato/okra (and tomatillo?) curry inspired by some of your past posts. Fingers crossed!

  • Susan January 16, 2013,

    Time to make this. Any thoughts on how many this serves (assume there are other dishes in the mix)? Thanks!