After complaining about the difficulty of finding a good thick dahl in Melbourne my workmate Theresa offered to get me her mum’s recipe. It is now a regular feature on our table throughout the colder months.
This recipe is so easy to make, it takes 30 minutes to prepare from start to finish and requires little supervision as it bubbles away. I like to throw the dahl and spices in the pot as soon as I get home and let it cook while I change and set the table, then all you have to do is come out and prepare the spices for tempering and bang – its ready.
Tempering is a mixture of spices that are fried in oil (or ghee) to release their flavours and added to the dish before serving. The tempering is a really important part of the dish and is what sets the dahl apart. It will transform your dahl from a bland soup into a flavoursome masterpiece, taking it from a humble side dish to a main course that can hold its own against a complex curry.
You can make this dish without the fresh curry leaves but I highly recommend seeking them out if you can. We love the flavour so much that we have bought our own plant for the garden! Accepting that not everyone can have their own curry leaf plant, you should be able to find fresh curry leaves at a market (Little Saigon Market in Footscray always has them) or an Indian grocer. Initially I tried dried curry leaves, so we could have them on hand at all times, but they really aren’t the same, they just don’t hold their flavour when they are dried. So when you see the fresh ones pick up a bunch. They will last for about 5 days in the fridge and you can store the leftovers in the freezer. Its not ideal but its the best alternative I’ve come up with to enable mid-week dahl indulgence.
Theresa’s Mum’s Sri Lankan Dahl
1 cup masoor dhal
2 cloves of garlic, roughly chopped
1 teaspoon pepper corns
1 big green chilli
1/2 tsp turmeric powder
1/2 tsp cummin seeds, crushed
2 1/2 cups of water
1 tsp salt
Handful of english spinach (you can use baby spinach but english is better as it has a bit more substance)
1/2 tsp mustard seeds (if you don’t have mustard seeds try coriander seeds)
1 medium brown onion, sliced
2 stems curry leaves
1 tbs canola oil
This recipe calls for massor dahl and that is what is traditionally used to make dahl. Masoor dahl is pink, not yellow, it is the tumeric that turns the dish yellow while it is cooking. If you don’t have masoor dahl you can use yellow split peas but I recommend seeking out the dahl, it is easy to find these days and is now sold in most supermarkets.
Crush the cumin seeds in a mortar and pestle. You should be able to smell the flavour releasing as you grind them.
Wash the dhal and place in a medium sized saucepan with the garlic, pepper, green chillies, turmeric and cummin seeds. Add 2 cups of water and cook on medium flame with a lide on. When the dhal is half cooked (at about 10 minutes) add the salt and lower the heat. I usually add another 1/2 a cup of water at this point and let it cook for another 5-10 minutes. Theresa’s mum’s recipe actually called for 1 cup of cream or milk with 1 cup of water. I prefer to use water, not just because it is healthier, but because I find the dairy makes it too rich. However, if you are after something more decadent substitute away!
How you want the texture is up to you. I like my dahl nice and thick, I hate the way most restaurants serve a really soupy style. However, if the soupy style is what you are after just add extra water. Alternatively, if it’s not thick enough for you just leave it on the stove for longer to reduce the water content.
Once cooked, remove the pot from the stove, stir through a handful of english spinach and set it aside with the lid on the pot.
In a frying pan, heat the oil and add the mustard seeds. When the seeds start to pop, add the sliced onions and saute till golden brown. Then add the curry leaves and saute for a further minute. Add the sauted mix to the cooked dhal and stir through.
Serve with steamed rice, papadums, a good mango chutney, some coconut sambal and natural yogurt. A simple way to end up with a table full of little dishes to enjoy.
Lunchbox tip: The dahl reheats really well for a next day lunch. I put the rice in a lunch box and then layer on 75 grams of firm tofu in cubes, a sliced mushroom, some slices of zucchini and capsicum (all raw) and then top with the dahl. Zap it for two minutes in the microwave and the dahl will smother the veggies and tofu and cook them perfectly. I like to take in a small container of yogurt to serve alongside it for a simple, healthy, gourmet lunch that is the envy of all my colleagues.