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A staple of Indian cooking, lentil dhal,also spelled dal, daal or dahl, can be prepared using various kinds of lentils and a huge variety of ingredients. These legumes are rich in protein and other nutrients, making them ideal for vegetarians like those that dominate the Indian subcontinent. Dhal and similar dishes are also prevalent in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal. Lentil products grow in many countries and leave little environmental impact.
The word dhal comes from the Sanskrit "to split," and refers to both the lentil and the dishes made from it. Lentil dhal in some form has been around for a long time, with archeological evidence of its consumption some 13,000 years ago. Lentils don't require pre-soaking like beans and are a good source of fiber, vitamin B1, folate, iron and about 30% protein. Eating them with rice provides missing amino acids.
The most common lentil dhal is dhal Chawal, lentils with rice. In northern India, this is more like stew, and is often accompanied by flatbread. Southern Indian cooks make it thinner like soup. East and West India both often serve the dish with rice, as does Pakistan, favoring spiced curries. Depending on the region, lentil dhal may be fairly mild, or heavily seasoned with spices fried in oil, and typically includes local vegetables.
Toor dhal, or yellow pigeon peas, makes a type of lentil dhal called sambar in south India. Another kind is masoor dhal, made with red or pink lentils that turn gold when cooked. Urad dhal, or black gram, is very popular in southern and eastern India. Some other types are made from different legumes such as varieties of chickpeas like Chan dhal, small brown kala chana, kabuli dhal and moong dhal, the latter a product of the mung bean.
Cooking with lentils is relatively easy. Most people boil them in water until tender and drain, or make them into soup. Indian cuisine uses spices such as cumin, garlic, turmeric and chili that are often fried in oil before adding to lentil dhal or other dishes to bring out the flavor.
Lentils are grown all around the world, in Africa, the Middle East, Ethiopia, and the Indian subcontinent, as well as the US. They provide complete protein intake when consumed as part of a balanced diet containing cereal and rice. Lentil dhal is inexpensive, healthy, and environmentally friendly, since legumes leave valuable nitrogen in the soil when they grow. It is a sustainable food that eco-conscious diners can feel good about eating.
I love dhal. I think I like the yellow dhal best, but I'll eat any of it. Dhal is a good "gateway" food to introduce people to Indian cuisine. It looks like something familiar, so many people are more apt to try it. Most folks have tried bean soup, lentil soup or split pea soup, so dhal is not a huge departure from the familiar.
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