Daily Dal 101 – Toorism

Oily Toor dal – a.k.a. yellow pigeon peas (not yellow split peas) – is the pulse used in South India to make soupy sambar. Sia@MoonSpice tells a romanticised version of the tale of Udupi Sambar, declaring, ‘for a
foodie like me, Udupi is paradise.‘   

pau bhaji, sorta

I have been there – it’s an overnight trip into Karnataka from South Goa on the train – and am sad to report that Udupi is foodie paradise well and truly lost. Or, maybe, the culture of Indian towns that make no appeal to foreigners doesn’t easily reveal itself. Udupi is a tourist town, but the visitors are overwhelmingly Hindu pilgrims coming to worship at the Krishna Temple, where the cuisine that made Udupi famous was developed.
I picked up a copy of Udupi Cuisine by U.B.Rajalakshmi and dipping into it is like glimpsing a parallel world in which food is prepared by high caste priests as an act of worship, in accordance with Ayurvedic precepts, with different dishes prepared in different seasons, designed to prevent the diseases that are prevalent during, say, monsoon times. 

Ginger is OK, but onions and garlic cannot be offered to Krishna in case
they make him angry or randy. They may be added later, as tarka, but are absent from the basic toor dal recipe, in which asafoetida is used for flavour used instead. So pungent that Germans call it Teufelsdreck – devil’s dung – cooking this peculiar powder transforms its taste into something a bit like leek. Asafoetida is a digestive aid that is anti-flatulent and anti-microbial, with a range of medicinal applications.

If asafoetida gives this dal its distinctive flavour, its yellow colour comes from haldi, a root related to ginger. Turmeric aka haldi, is the distinctive yellowy orange powder that characterises Indian cooking with its peppery flavour and mustardy smell. It has anti-fungal and
anti-bacterial properties;  turmeric paste may still be used in India as an antiseptic in open wounds.

The third vital spice in the mix that goes into this toor dal is kalonji. Erroneously called, ‘onion seed’, nigella sativa is apparently used in folk (herbal) medicine all over the
world for the treatment and prevention of a number of diseases and
conditions that include asthma, diarrhoea and dyslipidaemia! The seeds/oil have anti-inflammatory, analgesic,
antipyretic, antimicrobial and antineoplastic properties while the oil
decreases blood pressure and increases respiration. Verily, these tiny seeds are a pharmacological cornucopia!

In Manjula’s Toor demo video, she calls kalonji, ‘black mustard seeds’ and refers to asafoetida as ‘hing’. Manjula is pretty enthusiastic about salt, which I am not, and includes chilli powder as well as asafoetida whereas, in terms of flavour, I would prescribe one or t’other. As Manjula makes a couple of versions of toor dal, so too do I: one has asafoetida in its base and is finished with chopped coriander; the other has chilli and may be served with soothing yoghurt.

Most pertinently, Manjula uses a pressure cooker, which is the indispensable bit of kit for cooking dal of all types. Boiling one’s dal in a saucepan takes a lot longer and it never quite seems to achieve the requisite creamy texture. If you haven’t got a PC but have read this far then I am sorry to have dragged you down this cul de sac. I should have said something upfront. Or, you could just get one. Go on, it’s the 21st century internet: have a pressure cooker delivered tomorrow. You won’t regret it.

I use the smallest classic Hawkins, 1.5 litre, which is a handy size for a single person and easy to operate by a person with a single hand. Pressure cooking is always going to be an adventure, because you can’t see what’s going on, and it is somewhat dramatic when the valve emits a burst of steam, to the dog’s alarm. He takes up a position by the front door when the pressure cooker starts hissing in the kitchen, primed to supervise the inevitable evacuation, when that demonic contraption goes critical.

Do not overfill your pressure cooker – you want it about a third empty – and remember to fully release the pressure before trying to open it and you can’t go far wrong. After one or two experiments, you’ll evolve your own basic dal. Here’s mine:

A cup of oily toor dal, washed & drained. When I say, ‘cup’, I mean the coffee cup I use as a measure, which is 220ml. Use your own cup! When I say, ‘washed’, I mean soaked for at least half an hour in several changes of water.

under pressure
chilli spice mix

In the pressure cooker, over low heat, put:

* a dessert spoon of ghee, or nub of butter of similar size
* dessert spoon of grated fresh ginger
* bare (i.e.: flat) teaspoon of asafoetida/hing
* teaspoon of haldi/turmeric
* teaspoon of kalonji/nigella seeds

Mix the spices in the melting butter, add the dal, and cover with three cups of water. Seal the lid of the pressure cooker and turn up the heat. When the valve on the pressure cooker releases steam in a sudden hiss and the dog runs out of the room, reduce the heat to a minimum and continue cooking for another quarter of an hour or so, at least three steamings.

Turn the heat off under the cooker, but the contents will keep cooking under pressure. As this happens, you can make a tarka of fried onion , garlic, & spices to give it more oomph, or chop fresh coriander to stir into the finished dal for a more fragrant taste.

What I tend to do these days is leave the sealed PC while I nip out for nan or chapatis from the tandoor in East Street and finish it off upon my return ten minutes later.  You might cook rice, or serve your dal with a bread roll, like the pau bhaji in Goa.

When you feel the moment is right, release the pressure and open the lid of your cooker. If not quite cooked enough, return to the heat; if the cooked dal is too thick, add a drop of water. Boomshankah!

2 thoughts on “Daily Dal 101 – Toorism

Add yours

  1. Hey Russel.. funny, I was making Dal tonight and using the pressure cooker when I saw this…. shame I'd already put it on or I'd have tried your recipe. One for next time but thanks for making pressure cooker cooking cool again. I love mine.


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