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Indian Lentils - Staple of Indian Food

I use the term Indian Lentils as this page is specifically about the lentils used in Indian food. Also called daal, dal, dhal, they are a mainstay of the Indian diet and, since a great many Indians are vegetarian, a great source of protein.

They are often called pulses in dietary terms and are members of the legume family of vegetables. Essentially they are any one of a number of sorts of peas or beans that are dried, stripped of their outer hulls and split.

As well as being a source of protein, including essential amino acids, Indian lentils also provide dietary fibre, vitamins and minerals, and they are an excellent source of iron. When eaten with rice, as is often the case in much of India, the resultant meal is, from a dietary point of view, almost perfect.

To illustrate how important this food is, India produces about 1.5 million tonnes of lentils per year, which is almost half the entire world production, and most of it is consumed domestically.

Types of Indian Lentils

There are quite a number of Indian Lentils but here I will stick to the ones most commonly used in Indian cooking. The main types are chana daal, masoor daal, mung daal, urad daal and toor daal.

Chana Daal

This daal is yellow and probably the largest Indian lentil, it has a nutty sweet flavour. Also called Bengal gram, kala chana and a significant number of other things, these are one of the world's oldest cultivated vegetable. This and toor daal are the most popular Indian lentils and chana daal in particular is very versatile.

I always thought that chana daal were young chickpeas that were dried, skinned and split to form this yellow daal. When I did some research to check this out, it appears that they may be a smaller relative of the chickpea. There is a separate page for chickpeas.

Chana daal is an excellent food for diabetics. They are high in protein and fibre and have a very low glycemic index (that is they have almost no effect on blood sugar levels).

Although like most lentils, chana daal cooks quite quickly, less than 10 minutes, it is best to soak them for a couple of hours first. A lot of Indian cookery books will also tell you to 'pick over' the daal first to remove any small stones, bits that still have the brown hull on then and any other bits of stray debris. In my experience this is rarely necessary these days.

Masoor daal

These are salmon coloured and look a little like puy lentils. When cooked they turn a more golden colour and become quite mushy.

They are used all over Asia as well as the Middle East and Africa and are probably the Indian lentils we know best in the west.

These daal cook quickly but again it is better to soak them before cooking. Since they become soft, they are sometimes mashed to add to other dishes as a sort of very tasty thickening agent.

Masoor daal has a creamy texture and a sort of warm earthy taste. They are excellent with onions to make a more soupy dish and are good with meat stews.

Moong beans/daal

Moong beans probably originated in India and Pakistan but are now cultivated all over South East Asia, particularly in China - this is the bean from which beansprouts grow.

These can be bought both with an without their hulls; with them they are green (they are sometimes called green beans). The whole bean can be used simply by boiling with onion, ginger and spices, and then simmering until soft. The skins give them a stronger, more robust flavour than the split beans. They are used like this in some Southern Indian dishes.

When the shell is removed they become moong daal, a light yellow daal which is very easy to cook and to digest. As well as being used to make daal dishes, the daal can be ground to a paste to make a batter for pancakes. They are also mixed with rice and spices to make a breakfast snack called pongal.

Urad bean/daal

This is also a proper Indian lentil, native to India and has been around for a very long time. It is very nutritious and another pulse that is recommended for diabetics. Again this can be bought both with and without its outer hull.

With the shell it is black (and sometimes called black gram), and have a very pungent aroma and a rich earthy flavour. They are used like this to make the Punjabi dish Dal Makhani which is a sort of vegetarian equivalent to butter chicken.

Without the outer shell (washed) the lentils are a creamy colour, they are milder, less earthy and slightly chewier. Like this they are used to make dosas and idlis and can be added to flour to make breads. They can also be used with onion and tomato and spices to make a lovely daal curry.

Toor daal

This is another plant that has been cultivated for over 3000 years. It is also known as toovar and arhar and the lentils are pale yellow resembling chana daal but smaller. It is a split pigeon pea with a quite mild with a slightly nutty taste.

Nutritionally they are very balanced but particularly provide a lot of protein, carbohydrates and important amino acids.

They can be bought as whole pigeon peas which have a reddish brown skin but I have never used them like that. The skinned, split daal can be bought either with or without an oily coating. The oil coating is to improve the shelf life and should be washed off before using.

Toor daal is a staple of Southern India particularly Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, where it is used to make sambar - a vegetable stew cooked with toor in tamarind water - and rasam soup. It is also frequently ground into flour such as in kandi podi - a mixture of ground lentils and spices.

Toor should always be soaked well before using.

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