what is dal?

The term “dal” can refer to two different things. In one sense it can refer to a finished dish, and in the other, it can refer to an ingredient.

To be clear, dal, the dish, is usually, but not always, made from dal, the ingredient. Dal, the ingredient, can be used to make dal, the dish, but it can also be used in many, many other dishes, including desserts.

This essay looks at the ingredient. Dal as a dish? Take a look at our dal recipes.

When considering it as an ingredient, dal is often taken to mean lentils, but really refers to lentils, peas, chickpeas, kidney beans and so on. If these are dried, peeled, and split into half, it is dal. If they are whole, then they are usually called gram.

You almost certainly have dal in your kitchen. Yellow split peas are channa dal and split red lentils are masoor dal. These are common in western kitchens, often used to make soups and stews.

The better definition of the ingredient is a pulse. A pulse is a legume that grows in a pod and includes beans, lentils, peas and some other seeds. These are the primary source of protein for vegetarians, and India has around one billion vegetarians.

The United Nations has said that if the world shifted their primary protein source from meat to pulses we could solve many global problems. Pulse cultivation has a very low ecological footprint by comparison to livestock grazing. Pulses are easy to distribute as they need simple handling and don’t need refrigeration. They are easy to cook and need less energy for their preparation.

Aside from their protein content, pulses contain fibre, iron and many other nutrients necessary for a balanced diet.

Indian pulses usually come in three types: the whole pulse, the split pulse with the skin on, and the split pulse with the skins removed. Most of the recipes in this book use the latter.

Pulses are used to make a variety of food in Indian cuisine. The most common is of course the dish we know as dal, a stew-like preparation of pulses. Desserts are made with pulses. Pulses can be ground into flour such as besan and used to make foods such as pakoras and sev. Pulses can be soaked, ground into a paste and fermented to make dosa and idli.

cooking with pulses

The most consistent and hygienic source of pulses is bulk health food shops. If buying packaged pulses, always buy them in transparent packaging, and reject anything with an insect infestation or signs of moisture, which could indicate mould.

Before you cook with pulses, sift through them to take out any pebbles or debris. Then rinse them a few times to remove any dust or contaminants. If this seems worrisome, consider that the ingredient itself is almost impervious to bacterial contamination if kept dry. The accepted preparation methods even allow for water impurities to be mitigated. According to the World Health Organisation, it is one of the safest foods on the planet. Far more people die of food poisoning from poorly handled or prepared fish, poultry or meat, than from pulses. The notable exception is the red kidney bean, which is discussed below.

Pulses taste best when they are cooked slowly. When cooking pulses on the stovetop, bring to a boil and lower heat to medium-low and let simmer. Only measure cooking time once the pot has come to a boil. In the case of kidney beans, boil for a minimum of 30 minutes before lowering the heat to simmer. This preparation is needed to eliminate the natural toxin that they contain.

If the pulses are old, they will take a lot longer to cook. Just keep cooking, and add more water as needed.

Soaking pulses can cut the cooking time. The small pulses often do not need soaking, but any of the larger pulses, such as chickpeas, will benefit greatly from overnight soaking. Always refresh the soaking water before cooking.

If cooking on the stovetop use about three to four times the volume of the pulses in water. Watch the pot carefully, and add more water if the dish looks dry. Avoid vigorous stirring as this will cause the pulse to disintegrate. This may, of course, be the consistency to want to achieve. A better technique is occasional gentle stirring to keep the texture, and only at the end use a whisk to break the lentils down if that is what you want.

In a slow or pressure cooker, use two times the volume of the pulses in water.

Slow cookers can be a convenient way to prepare pulses. However, slow cookers do not much exceed 80C as their cooking temperature, and this is insufficient to destroy the toxins in red kidney beans. In fact, preparing them at this temperature over a lengthy period will concentrate the toxin. Pressure cookers have a related problem because of the quickness of the cooking. The temperature is above boiling point, but cooking times rarely exceed the required 30 minutes. You should either boil them for 30 minutes before adding them to either type of cooker or use canned beans which are already boiled.

the pulses in our pantry

black eyed peas

Black-eyed peas are creamy white in colour and have a black mark on their inner curve. They have a subtle, nutty aroma and a rich creamy taste that is slightly earthy.

black gram

Black gram or urad dal is common in Indian cooking. The product sold as black lentil is usually the whole urad bean, whereas the skinned and split bean, which has a white interior, is called the white lentil.


Chickpeas are used in snacks, salads and dals. They are the basic ingredient in besan, a gluten-free flour used extensively in Indian cuisine. Some of our favourite recipes in this book feature chickpeas, or besan.

mung beans

Mung beans are a most versatile product. They are eaten whole, sprouted, split with the skins on and split with the skins removed.

red kidney beans

Very popular in Punjabi cuisine, these beans have a strong flavour with a slightly sweet aftertaste, a nutty aroma and a chewy texture.

red lentils

Masoor dal is versatile. If you are unsure of what dal to use in any recipe, then these red lentils should be your default option.

split pigeon peas

Split pigeon peas, or toor dal, are beige with a yellow interior. They have distinctive nutty flavour.

yellow split peas

Yellow split peas are the dried, peeled and split seeds of the pea. They are sometimes referred to as split Bengal gram or sometimes channa dal.


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