My fellow philosopher and utilitarian Peter Singer has published a dal recipe. As with philosophy, so with cuisine: I have a lot of respect for Singer’s work but I think it can be improved upon in crucial respects. Here’s my dal recipe, based on inheritances from my grandmother and father, and honed over at least a decade of my own experimentation. It’s very cheap, easy, vegan* and tasty. I make it about once a week.
- Put lentils and cold water in a large saucepan or casserole. The ratio should be one part lentils to three parts water. One mug of lentils (and three of water) will make around three people’s worth of dal. I use red (masoor) lentils, or a mixture of red lentils and moong lentils. The red lentils are the quickest to cook, I think – and neither they nor moong need soaking beforehand.
- Add fresh ginger, fresh chillies (slit), garlic cloves, some halved fresh tomatoes and (if you can get them) fresh curry leaves to the lentils. Sometimes I put a stick of cinnamon in too.
- Bring to a boil, then turn down to a gentle simmer. You’ll probably get some white scummy foam on the surface. Skim it off, then stir. Keep skimming and stirring occasionally as the lentils cook. You want them to cook until completely dissolved in the water: this will take about 45 minutes.
- Slice an onion thinly (one onion to one mug of lentils). Heat oil or ghee in a frying pan. On a high heat, fry mustard seeds until they pop, then add cumin seeds and curry leaves. When these start to change colour and become aromatic, add the onion, and ground spices: turmeric, coriander and black pepper. If your fresh chillies aren’t very hot you might want to add chilli powder to the onions here. If you lacked fresh tomatoes, you could add tomato puree here. All these spices are optional and can be swapped for other spices if you like: the important thing is whole spices before the onion, ground spices afterwards, and all of it fried for ten minutes or so. Once the onions go in, turn the heat down a little: you want them to soften but not to brown.
- Once the lentils have completely dissolved into the water, add the onion and spice mix. Stir and cook very gently for another ten minutes or so. Add salt to taste. If the dal is looking dry at this stage you can add more water or cook it with a lid on. If it’s looking too wet, cook with no lid for a little longer. Don’t be tempted to turn the heat up to boil off the water quickly: in my experience this does funny things to the lentils and somehow makes things even wetter.
- That’s your dal. Serve with rice, yoghurt and Indian pickles, and a vegetable dry curry.
*It’s not vegan if you use ghee or yoghurt, of course.