Varan (c) Nandita Godbole, 2014
That is because the word daal refers to both the raw, uncooked lentils as well as its creamy preparation. In the preparation of daal, unlike most soups, the lentils are the dominant ingredient and all others provide only the flavor. It is not clear (like broth), not cream-of-something (because in most recipes no cream is added to it) nor does it require onions, potatoes, tomatoes or stock to add volume, but these are used only for their flavor.
Besides, it will annoy any friends with an Indian heritage who are within earshot, especially those who don’t want to raise their children referring to daal as soup, particularly when grandparents are listening. In this day and age of globalization, referring to daal as soup still counts as a cultural faux-pas.
For most people who are raised within the Indian cultural cauldron – be it familial heritage or geography, daal is a generic word for many kinds of lentils such as split pigeon peas (toor daal), red lentils (masoor-ki-daal), black lentils (urad daal), chick-peas (channa daal), Mung beans (moong-ki-daal) and many more. When skinless lentils are cooked into a preparation, that dish is referred to as ‘daal’ and is most often, but not exclusively, served with rice. When the whole, skinned lentils are cooked into a preparation, I have seen it most often, but not exclusively, served with roti, poori or a bread-like component of the meal. Regardless of what it is served with, it is such a familiar dish in Indian meals that various kinds of daal are a staple ingredient in an Indian pantry. This Hindi idiom reflects the mindset: “घर की मुर्गी दाल बराबर |”, which literally translates into: even chicken when raised at home tastes just like the (everyday) daal.
The most commonly used daal is Toor Daal – or split pigeon peas. When cooked, Toor daal can be transformed into virtually any dish. With a distinct creamy texture and mild flavor, it is receptive to a range of spices. Daal can be prepared simply into Varan, (a Maharashtrian preparation using just ghee, cumin seeds, turmeric and salt) or with a range of spices and vegetables to create Saambar (a South Indian preparation to accompany rice, dosa and more), into Dhansaak (a Parsi preparation using Toor daal and meat), or Daal Dhokli (a Gujarati preparation of Toor daal with whole wheat ‘dhokli’), into Daal-ki-Khitchidi (a one-pot dish of Toor daal and rice, seasoned with vegetables and spices) and many more. Cooked and sweetened Toor daal makes the filling for a traditional dessert treat: Pooranpoli; and when soaked, minced and spiced: becomes Daal-wada, common Southern Indian fare prepared a hundred different ways. It versatility and adaptive qualities make this a ‘must-have’ for any pantry.
Packed with nutrition and loads of fiber, and absolutely easy to cook up, the first challenge for novice chefs is not how to cook it, or what recipe to use, but how to differentiate a good daal from a bad one.
Selecting a good Toor Daal:
Uncooked, skinned split pigeon peas, or Toor daal, are found in two versions in the grocery store: oily and non-oily. The oily daals are typically coated with edible oil to repel insects. However, I find that over time, this kind of oily daal begins to take on the odor of whatever oil it was coated in, and it is harder to wash off the oil prior to cooking.
I prefer to use non-oily daal in my cooking. The cotyledons, or daal grains of a fresher batch are glossy but not oily, and do not show any discoloration or unevenness of tone. Older Toor daal appears darker in color in comparison to a fresher batch, which is more ochre yellow or golden yellow in color. Older daal requires more time to cook, has a different flavor and appears more ochre orange when cooked. I also prefer the grains of daal to have a golden yellow color.
An even tone
A glossy exterior of the cotyledon
No discoloration on the cotyledon
Fewer broken cotyledons
A golden yellow color (not sunshine yellow or ochre).
It may take a few visits to different stores or one or trying out different brands to differentiate between colors of daal. Purchase daal from a well lit, well stocked store, preferably in person, and you won’t be disappointed.
Cooking Skinless, Split Toor daal:
Most skinless split lentils can be cooked this way, but refer to specific recipes for instructions on how to cook a particular daal. This particular method applies most commonly to skinless split Toor daal and skinless split yellow Moong daal.
Pressure cooker method:
Pick the Toor daal and remove impurities. Use 2 cups of water per cup of daal, enough to leave about 1 inch of water above the uncooked daal. Prepare the pressure cooker by pouring about 1 inch of water in the cooker to cover the cooking rack, if it has one. On the side, rinse the daal in cold water and place in a separate stainless steel container that fits inside the pressure cooker. A small stainless steel mixing bowl is a useful alternative if you don’t have an appropriate size container. Assume that the daal will boil for an inch or two over its level within the container while it is inside the pressure cooker, so be sure to leave plenty of room for the daal to stay within the container during cooking. Place this within the pressure cooker and allow it to cook with the pressure for 15-20 minutes until the water has evaporated. At this point, turn off the heat and allow the pressure valve to drop. Remove the daal from the pressure cooker; the daal will be softened and ready to use.
Pick the Toor daal and remove impurities. Use 2 cups of water per cup of daal and cook in a lightly covered, deep microwave safe dish. Cook for 20 minutes and check for doneness. The daal should be softened and ready to use. If not, add some boiling hot water to it and cook it again for another 5 minutes. Adding cold water will only seize the grain and prevent it from cooking further.
Daal can be precooked till this point and reserved in the fridge for up to 3 days before use or frozen for up to 1 week before use. Thaw frozen daal in the refrigerator 1 day prior to using or microwave it with 1 cup of water for 5-8 minutes.
A typical Hindu-ritual friendly dish, Varan is one of the simplest preparations of daal and a healthy one too. Cumin adds digestive qualities and turmeric boosts the immune system. Perfect for when you are feeling under the weather, it also pairs well with a bowl of steaming hot rice.
Makes: 2-3 servings
Diet: Vegetarian, Ritual friendly, Gluten free
Prep Time: 20 minutes
Cook Time: 5 minutes
1-2 cups pre-cooked Toor daal
1 tblsp ghee or butter (do not use oil, it will alter the taste)
1 tsp cumin seeds
¼ tsp turmeric powder
½ cup water
Salt to taste
Optional: splash of lemon juice, chopped cilantro / coriander leaves
Heat the ghee in a small heavy bottom saucepan. As it warms, add the cumin seeds and allow them to crackle. Turn the heat down, add the turmeric powder and stir it in. Immediately add the precooked Toor daal, and add a half cup of water to allow the spices to mingle. Cook for 2-3 minutes. Give it a stir during the cooking process to prevent the daal from settling or sticking to the bottom. Season with salt; add a splash of lemon juice and garnish with cilantro leaves if using any.
Variation: Skinless split yellow Moong daal can also be used in place of split skinless Toor daal.