When I first discovered Indian food some 20 years ago, dal was the one dish I never quite understood. Next to the spicy, flavorful curries and tandoori dishes, I just didn't grasp the appeal of dal. It was usually watery thin, lifelessly brown in color, and relatively tasteless. Perhaps that was more a reflection of where I was eating than the potential for deliciousness among Indian dal. I have little doubt that prepared by a wonderful Indian home cook, dal wouldn't disappoint. That said, it wasn't until I started experimenting with Afghan dal that I started to see the beauty of this humble, soulful dish.
Dal refers to an entire category of legumes which includes many sizes and colors of lentils and split peas. Although tiny yellow lentils are the most common variety used for Afghan dal, I prefer red lentils because they are easy to find in ordinary markets and cook quickly. The color is more pinkish orange than red, and turns pale yellow when cooked. Regardless of the variety, all these legumes are incredibly cheap, easy to prepare (none of the pre-soaking that is required for beans) and jam packed with nutrients.
Afghan dal is a little thicker, less soupy, than Indian dal. It's typically served with nan bread or challaw (white rice). Humaira's family is fond of eating it with yogurt, a practice I've come to adopt myself. Here is a recipe for dal made with plenty of onions and garlic, fresh ginger, a touch of cumin and cayenne pepper. I've also added a teaspoon of turmeric which brightens up the color. Served with warm pita bread and yogurt, it makes a complete and very wholesome meal that's even better the next day.
Afghan Dal with Ginger and Cumin
2 tsp. olive oil
1 finely chopped medium onion
2 cloves minced garlic
1 1/2 tbsp. fincely minced fresh ginger
1 tsp. ground turmeric
1/2 tsp. ground cumin
1/8 tsp. ground cayenne
1 cup red lentils
2 1/2 cups low-sodium chicken broth (or vegetable broth)
2 tbsp. fresh lemon juice
1 tsp. kosher salt
Heat the olive oil over medium-low heat in a medium sauce pan. Add the onion, garlic and ginger and saute for about 5 minutes until the onion is translucent. Add the turmeric, cumin, cayenne, lentils and broth, stir and turn the heat up to high. When the liquid boils, turn the heat down to a simmer, cover and cook until the lentils are very tender, about 15 minutes. Remove from heat and add the lemon juice and salt. Serve with a spoonful of plain yogurt and warm pita or nan bread.
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