This recipe is the Bengali take on tarka dal. They call it onion dal, or peyaj dal, because of the lightly caramelised onions. It has a slightly sweet taste because of the way the onions are cooked with jaggery, but that is to balance the bite of the chilli.
It is similar to our recipe for tarka dal, but it uses different ingredients, although the technique is the same. Cook some lentils, then mix them with a tempered oil to serve. This recipe is somewhat quicker to make, because the red lentils take a lot less time to cook.
The first key ingredient for this recipe is the panch phoran. This is a mix of five spices and is the instantly recognisable taste of much Bengali cuisine. Whilst it is available from Indian grocers, it is simple to make yourself and tastes so much better. The second key ingredient is the onion. Some versions of this dish use much more onion, two or even three of them. By all means increase the onion if you want. As described below it uses just one and provides a good balance. Your personal taste may differ. The mustard oil is very important, too. If you do not have mustard oil, substitute it with a plain vegetable oil.
You must use the right lentils. The split red lentils, or masoor dal, are an important part of this recipe. Substituting other types of lentils will not give the true Bengali flavour. If you want to use different lentils, then there are recipes in this book that are probably more suitable.
This is a simple family dish. We serve it with plain rice and one of our favourite pickles or chutneys.
- Thoroughly wash the lentils, drain, then place into a pot with 750ml of water, the turmeric and salt.
- Bring the lentils gently to the boil, then reduce heat to a low simmer and cook for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove any foam that appears. If the lentils start to dry out, add a little more water as required. Do not add too much as you do not want a watery dal.
- Heat the mustard oil in a pan over medium heat and add the panch phoran. When the seeds start to pop add the onions, jaggery and salt and mix well.
- Fry the onions for about ten minutes, or until they have softened and taken on a golden colour. The jaggery will help this caramelisation process. Do not overcook the onions – dark brown is too much.
- When the onions have coloured, add the red chilli, and fry for two minutes.
- Check the consistency of the dal and add a little boiling water, if required. Mix gently – or if you prefer a smooth dal, vigourously whisk the dal, adding water as required. Be cautious adding water as you can easily go too far and have a dal that is more like a soup.
- Add the oil and onion mix and the split red chilli to the dal then mix gently . Check seasoning and cautiously add salt if required. The dish should have a slightly sweet undertone to contrast the bite from the chilli.
- Turn the dal into a serving bowl and garnish with the coriander.
- The more you stir the lentils, the more they will break down. We like our lentils with some texture, but if you prefer a smoother dal, use a whisk to break down the grains before adding the tempered oil.