Heritage Inspired Cooking: Buttery Pigeon Pea Dal (Mitti Handi Dal)

Heritage Inspired Cooking: Buttery Pigeon Pea Dal (Mitti Handi Dal)


It so happens that Mother Nature was kind enough to shower so much snow upon the ground that the school district granted us a SECOND snow day! (can you believe it). I decided that amongst finishing up some unfinished homework, I would also spend the day trying out new recipes. For breakfast I cooked up some Quinoa Cakes that I saw Gail Simmons make on the Internet cooking site, Kitchendaily. Let’s just say that cakes were not exactly what I expected, there were kind off bland and flavourless, not to mention a tad-bit burnt due to the fact that I’m not the best at frying things. However, I never let one failure get in my way and a couple hours later, upon my mother’s request, I set out to make dinner.

The Quinoa Cakes, not so hot
From the looking at this blog, one my get the impression that baking/deserts is my forte, and it is because that is how I started cooking in the first place. However, I have also been cooking up lots of savory things , its just that I often find success easier when it comes to making desert. Well, its been almost two years since I cooked my first meals, and I have to say that my preparation of savory dishes improved ten-fold over the summer when I made dinner at least once a week. Now that the school year is in full session though, I don’t make dinner as much, but when I do, it has to be something special.

A dal is a lentil soup that is lifeblood of Indian Cuisine. It is served at almost every meal with rice, and it varies from region to region from sambar, the spicy South-Indian variety that is eaten with steamed rice cakes idlis and lentil crepes, dosas for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, to the rich and creamy dal makhani or Northern India, traditionally cooked for long hours over charcoal and renown as a party staple and stereotypical Indian restaurant fare. Then there are the dals of everywhere in between mixed lentil vaidu, a Gujarati favorite of my Dad, sprouted moong, masoor dal (my favorite) and probably the most common toor dal.

Toor dal is also known as pigeon peas. When I say that this dal is common, I do not mean as in you will find it in restaurant menus. Rather it is the staple of most Indian households, the authentic dal, if I may. You will find these pigeon peas along with most other lentils dried and split in Indian grocery stores and as of recently, most supermarkets in America. Dried lentils of course need a good soaking and a decent boiling time to bring about a soft, slightly mushy consistency that allows a dal to go from soupy slurping liquid to thick, soul-warming goodness.

Being Indian myself, I have grown up on dal my whole life, but never once have I tried cooking it. So intimidated was I of what mom’s potential reaction if I were to tell her, that I masked the dal with the name “lentil soup” which ironically enough is just dal in English. She bought it and thinking that it was some sort of Italian fare that I usually make, she ran to the store and bought breads, and flatbreads saying that we would make focaccia. “Oh dear”, I thought to myself. In the end I knew once she saw it we were going to end up eating it with chapatis (traditional Indian flatbread) or basmati rice. I just did not want to tell her I was making Indian food because that’s her territory, the food she grew up making and the food that I am now learning to make after years of experiencing it. Praying for the best I jumped head first in the process knowing that from the moment I soaked my lentils, there was no turning back.

It turns out that dal is very easy to make. Everytime my mom makes dal she is always soaking the lentils overnight and cooking it for hours in a pressure cooker. The truth is, dal can really be made in a matter of an hour. A quick soak of the lentils for 30 minutes preps them for the cooking process, and after a boiling time of about 30 minutes they have already reached the perfect dal-consistency, soft and mushy (yes I know that may sound gross, but you don’t want dal to be al dente. I can assure you that chewing firm lentils won’t be any fun, and you need some of the lentils to dissolve and thicken the soup). Once I threw in all my favorite Indian flavors (turmeric, garlic, ginger, cumin seeds, cilantro) and the dal began emitting aromas reminiscent of of my childhood, and I knew that I had made my dal correctly.

Yet its perhaps the butter that really takes me back. When my brother and I were young, my mother would stir in a pat of butter in our dal to encourage us to eat it. The butter adds a rich, creamy flavor that is sought after by children. Even to a grown-up palette the butter adds a little touch of home.
As I made this dal, I began to realize that even though I do not care particularly much for it now, I will certainly miss it next year when I head off to college. I know that I will not find this nor anything remotely Indian and homemade at any campus. So please, savor the flavors of India today! This dal served with rice, chapati, or even some sliced Italian bread makes the perfect meal on a cold, blizzardy day!
Recipe: Butter Pigeon Pea Dal (Mitti Handi Dal)
From: Food and Wine (December 2010 Issue)
Active Cooking Time: 20 Minutes, Total Time: 1 Hour
Serves: 4
  • 1 cup split yellow pigeon peas (toor dal), rinsed
  • 2 jalapenos- 1 halved and seeded, 1 minced
  • 1 teaspoon turmeric
  • salt
  • 2 tablespoons canola oil
  • 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped onion
  • 1 large garlic clove, minced (I upped this to 2)
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons minced fresh ginger
  • 2 medium tomatoes, finely chopped
  • pinch of cayenne pepper
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
  • 2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
1. Soak the pigeon peas in water for about 30 minutes, then drain and rinse well
2. Place the pigeon peas in a saucepan. Add the halved jalapeno, 1/2 teaspoon of the turmeric, 4 cups of water and pinch of salt. Bring to a boil and them simmer over moderately low heat for about 30 minutes, until the peas are tender. Discard the jalapeno halves.
3. Meanwhile in another pan, heat the canola oil until shimmering. Add the cumin seeds and cook over a moderate heat until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the onion, ginger, garlic, and minced jalapeno and cook a moderate heat until the onion is lightly browned, 5 minutes. Add the remaining 1/2 teaspoon turmeric along with the tomatoes and the cayenne and cook over moderately low heat till the liquid has evaporated and the tomatoes are softened, about 5 minutes more.
4. Add the tomato-onion mixture to the pigeon peas and their cooking liquid and simmer until the dal is slightly thickened, about 5 minutes. Stir in salt to taste. Just before serving stir in the butter and cilantro and serve with steamed basmati rice, naan, chapati

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