Lentils are ancient foods and were eaten in India in prehistoric times. Lentils are called ‘dal’ in many parts of India. The word denotes the raw product as well as cooked lentils. They are essentially carbohydrate and protein with no fat.
India is one of the largest growers of lentils in the world because of ideal climatic conditions as well as the high demand for them. Lentils are consumed on a daily basis because they’re so readily available, cheap and filling, and as they bulk up on cooking.
Dal is the staple food all over India and is eaten with rice or rotis. The amino acids cysteine and methionine missing in lentils are provided by grains, and the lysine that is limited in grains is supplied by lentils. Lycine is an amino acid that is essential in the bio synthesis of proteins. The human body cannot synthesise it so it must be acquired from the diet. Therefore, this fairly inexpensive combination of dal and rice forms a powerhouse of complete protein, that is an adequate proportion of all the nine essential amino acids needed by humans.
The word ‘dal’ is quite confusing because it is loosely used for a large group of lentils, pulses and legumes, both cooked and uncooked. Lentils are legumes that are shaped like a convex lens, whereas beans are bigger. The term also includes beans like kidney beans, chickpeas or dried peas, all of which are grown and eaten in India.
Dals are available in three main forms:
Whole Pulse (Sabut Dal): This is the whole bean, as in mung bean (green), urad/urid bean (black), masoor (brown lentils), so is is called, for example, ‘sabut mung ki dal’.
Split Pulse (Chilka): This is the split bean with the skin on, such as mung dal chilka.
Hulled Pulse (Dhuli Hui Dal: This is the split, skinned bean such as mung dal (these are yellow when the green skin is stripped away), urad dal (when the black skin is removed, the lentil within is creamy white) or masoor dal (red lentils which are inside the brown skin).
Pulses are most often cooked into a stew-like preparation called dal but are also used to make desserts like ‘puran poli’ where cooked and sweetened lentils are layered between fine flour pancakes, or snacks such as ‘dhokla’, a spongy, savoury cake tempered with mustard and cumin.
They are used for batters as in ‘dosa’ or south Indian pancakes or to thicken curries as in ‘kadhi’, a yogurt and gram flour preparation.
Red / Orange Lentils (Masoor Dal)
Orange lentils are the seeds of a bushy plant and grow in long pods. When left whole the lentils are dark brown to greenish-black in colour, round and flattish. The fairly thick skin conceals a pinkish-orange centre. These lentils are delicate in flavour and have a nutty, fresh taste. The whole lentils are muskier, chewy and coarser.
Mung Beans (Moong): Mung beans, or green gram, are very versatile. ‘Bean sprouts’, commonly available everywhere, are actually sprouted mung beans. Whole mung beans, or green gram, are small, oval and olive-green in colour. When split, they are small, flattish and yellow. Whole mung beans have a stronger flavour and texture than the split ones. They are rather chewy and musky. The yellow, split mung beans are extremely easy to cook, need no soaking and are easy to digest. They are used for both sweet and savoury dishes and are easy to sprout at home.
Pigeon Pea (Toor or Arhar Dal): In some parts, yellow lentils are slightly oiled to increase their shelf life, more so when the lentils are exported. These lentils are yellow and sold split into two round halves. They are very easy to digest and have a pleasant, nutty flavour. They take longer to cook than red lentils and can be soaked for an hour or so to hasten the cooking process.
Gram Lentils (Chana Dal): Gram, or Bengal gram as it is also known, is the most widely grown lentil in India. They are husked and left whole, split or ground into a flour called besan. This flour is used to make batter (as in fritters), as a thickening agent in curries or is cooked with jaggery to make many different sweets.
Matte and yellow, gram lentils resemble yellow lentils but are slightly bigger and coarser. They are stronger in taste than most other lentils, with a nutty sweet aroma and flavour. Soaking them for one hour in hot water will reduce their cooking time.
This is also known as black lentil or gram and is the same size and shape as the mung bean. It has an earthy flavour and when cooked develops a creamy, slippery texture that is prized in recipes such as the north Indian ‘dal makhani’.
There are two main varieties of chickpeas: white (kabuli chana) and brown (kala chana or black chickpeas). These peas are small, hard and have a thick skin, which often comes away during soaking and cooking. On their own, chickpeas have little aroma or taste, but when cooked with flavourings and spices, they take on a nutty, creamy flavour.
Chickpeas are available dried or cooked and tinned in brine. Dried chickpeas need to be soaked in water at room temperature for at least 8 hours, after which they nearly double in size. The dark variety is dark brown, small and hard and has a strong, earthy aroma. They have a thick skin and a pleasant, nutty flavour and are also available tinned.
Tender val pods are eaten as a fresh vegetable. Dried val beans are creamy-white to light tan in colour. They have a thick, white ridge on one side. On cooking, val acquires a strong, nutty aroma and the taste becomes creamy with a slight, but not unpleasant, bitterness.
Val needs soaking in water overnight as it is quite hard. It is usually sprouted to enhance its flavour. The beans need to be peeled to remove the thick, chewy skin, then they are ready to be cooked.
These are small, elongated beans with a brown skin and a brownish-yellow interior and they have a nutty, mildly bittersweet flavour and a strong, earthy smell. They are often sprouted to make a dry side dish or served on buttered toast for breakfast.
Butter Beans (Pavta)
Butter beans are large, creamy-white and flattish. They have a medium-thick skin. The name shows the bean’s most obvious characteristic: a buttery, smooth taste. They have a pleasant, nutty aroma.
Red Kidney Beans (Rajma)
The Portuguese brought the red kidney bean to India along with other staples such as tomato and chilli. At the temple dedicated to the goddess Vaishno Devi in Kashmir, a mosaic of roadside restaurants welcomes visitors with a traditional meal of kidney beans and rice.
Dried Peas (Mutter)
The pea plant is believed to have originated in western Asia and was later cultivated by the Greeks, Romans and Persians. The three commonly used varieties of pea - black, white and green - are small, round and smooth. Reconstituted peas (soaked and boiled) have an earthy smell and taste quite different from fresh ones. Dried peas must be soaked in water for 8 to 12 hours before use.
Black Eyes Beans (Lobia / Chawli)
These large, oblong beans are creamy-white, with a black ‘eye’ on one side. The skin is quite thick. They have a subtle, nutty aroma and a rich, creamy taste that is slightly earthy.
How to Cook Lentils
The three forms of lentils - whole beans, ‘chilka’, and skinless, split ones - all take different lengths of time to cook. The time will also depend on the heat source - whether you are using, for example, a gas hob, an electric cooker or induction heat. The shape and size of your pan will also make a difference - a wide, shallow pan will encourage faster evaporation, so you will need to add more liquid while cooking.
Whole beans, whether they are big like red kidney beans or small like mung, all benefit from soaking, as the cooking time reduces and they cook softer. Although many raw beans contain the toxin phytohaemagglutinin, a protein also known as kidney bean lectin, kidney beans contain the highest levels. Cooked beans also have it but in much lower and harmless levels. Soaking and cooking the beans fully ensures that no harmful side effects occur.
Dried kidney beans, especially, must be soaked for a minimum of 6 hours. Other beans also cook better with long soaking times. Drain away the soaking water, rinse and then cook the beans.
It is best to rinse and drain lentils before using, to remove some of the starch. Rinse under cold running water until the water turns from milky to almost clear.
Start by adding double the amount of water by volume to the dal. You need not measure this; the water should be roughly a couple of centimetres over the lentils.
Bring the water to a rapid boil then reduce the heat to a gentle bubble and continue cooking. You can cover the pan to reduce the cooking time but leave it partially uncovered to stop the liquid from boiling over.
You may find that, depending on the source of heat (gas / electric / big ring / small ring) as well as the pan, you need to add more water as the lentils cook. Remember to add only enough water to keep the lentils submerged. You can add hot water from a kettle or just pour in cold water and increase the heat to bring it to the boil. Reduce the heat again and continue simmering.
You’ll find that a frothy scum rises to the top when lentils and beans are coming to a boil. You can skim this off with a slotted spoon. As soon as you have reduced the heat to a simmer, the scum formation reduces.
Lentils are ‘done’ when they have plumped up and disintegrated into a mush. Whole beans or pulses will not fall apart during cooking - they should soften just enough to fall apart on the merest touch, so that they can be eaten with rice or scooped up with a piece of roti.