This dish is simple, hearty. To me it has always been exotic; to my husband it is comfort and familiarity. To me it is is special; to my husband it is a staple.
My mother-in-law was cooking for us constantly during the two months she spent here after the birth of our second baby, Everett (who is now 3 months old). She is a fabulous cook, though when you compliment anything she makes, she says, “Oh Jenn, this is so simple!”.
If breakfasting on steaming, aromatic lentils and freshly rolled whole wheat flatbreads for is “simple”, I think we north americans have our priorities seriously wrong.
Although these lentils require far more effort than most Canadians put into their breakfast (open cereal box, pour), Amma does have a point about it being simple. Seriously. The easiest, most flavourful hands-on 5 minutes you can hope for.
You see, the lentils cook on their own in water until soft. When they’ve simmered to tenderness, you quickly fry mustard seeds, curry leaves, ginger, chiles, and tomatoes in a separate saucepan. Then you scrape them into the cooked lentils and stir. Done.
I was skeptical at first about this method – I mean, I’m used to flavour building in layers. But this is a tried-and-true Indian cooking technique (maybe unique to South India). The mixture you add at the end is called a tarka – aromatics quickly fried in hot oil, stirred into the dish at the last minute. This simple step is enough to flavour a huge pot of lentils.
The amount of salt needed will vary, depending on how much water evaporated. I used 2 1/2 tsp and it was perfect, but start with less and add more to taste. Also, this amount of water yields quite soupy lentils. You could actually eat it as a soup, if you like. If you prefer it thicker and more curry-like, cook the lentils in 3 cups of water instead, adding more as needed while they cook. If you do this, start with 1 tsp salt and work your way up.
Serve the lentils for breakfast, lunch or dinner with rice, chapati (which are whole wheat tortillas) or slurp it up with a spoon.
Now that Adarsh’s parents have gone home to Dubai, the smell of fragrant curry leaves and nutty mustard seeds sizzling in my kitchen bring back warm fuzzy feelings of family, being cared for, and well fed. It seems what was once exotic is now familiar comfort food to me, too.
South-Indian Red Lentils (Masoor Dal)
- 1 1/2 cups red lentils
- 2 tsp kosher salt plus more to taste
- 1/2 tsp turmeric
- 1/4 cup coconut or vegetable oil
- 1/8 tsp asaofetida
- 1 tsp mustard seeds
- 1/4 cup loosely packed curry leaves
- 1 tbsp minced ginger
- 2-3 thai green chiles split lengthwise (3 can be quite hot)
- 1/2 cup diced tomato fresh or canned
- Rinse lentils and bring to a boil with 5 cups of water. Reduce heat and simmer, partially covered, stirring occasionally, for about 40 minutes, or until very soft. Stir in salt and turmeric.
- Place oil in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. When shimmering hot, sprinkle asafoetida (if using) over the oil, then add the mustard seeds and curry leaves. As soon as the mustard seeds pop and the curry leaves turn a shade darker, reduce heat to low and stir in the ginger and chiles. Fry for about 15 seconds, then add the tomatoes. Give it a stir, then stir it into the cooked lentils, oil and all. Taste and add more salt if needed (I added an extra 1/2 tsp).