Most of us know dhal to be that yellow, split peas soup that’s traditionally flavoured with geera, onions and garlic. However, around the world, dhal is made with a variety of legumes and vegetables and infused with almost any spice.
‘Pulses’ is the categorical name given to any type of edible legume, bean or dried peas. Dhal can be made out of any type of pulse and used as a soup or ladled over rice and paired with a meat or vegetable. We dive into the different types of pulses one can use to make dhal as well as unconventional spices that can be used to infuse your dhal.
Change The Base
Pigeon peas in either a canned or dried form are used to make the northern Indian dish, arhar dal. Pigeon peas produce a much more buttery dhal because of the texture of the legumes itself. We recommend simmering the peas (as you would normally do with dhal) and either using the back of a spoon to break up and mash them or use an immersion blender to completely purée the dhal.
Rajma dal is a traditional red bean curry that’s completely different in cooking method to the familiar yellow split-pea dhal but it still functions as a dhal. A curry paste is fried in oil and then used to sauté red kidney beans. The kidney beans are mashed as they soften in water to make a thick, dhal-like sauce. Kidney beans are a great alternative to yellow split peas because they have a heartier texture and more intense flavour. The filling bean is more likely to make a dhal that would satiate you.
Yellow or red split lentils are used to make a type of dhal known as, masoor dhal. If using canned, lentil dhal can be a relatively quick-cooking dhal. However, if using dried, the lentils would need to be boiled long enough for them to disintegrate and become like dhal. The earthy notes and wholesome texture of lentil make it a welcomed change from yellow split peas which have almost no texture once boiled long enough. Dhal is made with both red, green and yellow lentils.
Split channa or chickpeas introduces a meatier texture to the common smooth, and soup-like dhal. Usually, channa dhal is made from small, brown or black chickpeas, however, since that is not the most accessible ingredient in Trinidad, pale, yellow chickpeas should suffice. They are larger than brown or black chickpeas but are still full of nutty flavour, can promise a hearty bite and will most certainly make a yummy channa dhal.
Have Fun With Your Seasonings
Add in fresh herbs like chandon beni, chives and even parsley for an added touch of brightness to what is usually a dense stew of pulses. If added at the end of cooking, the residual heat from the dhal will heat the herbs just enough for their flavours to permeate the dhal while also remaining crisp and bright.
Dhal and curry powder usually come together when cooked as two separate elements however, as seen in, rajma dal, curry powder is an important ingredient in traditional Indian dhals. Try sauteeing your curry powder as you normally would for curried chicken or fish but instead, add your yellow split peas (or opt for one of our other suggested bases). You may just be getting the best of both worlds.
Adding carapoulay (sometimes seen as carpoulay) or curry leaves to your dhal is not the most original idea but, it’s so good, we just had to include it on this list. Fry or, more accurately, chunkay the leaf along with your other aromatics and then mix into the dhal. The leaf’s pine and pepper notes will permeate the dhal in a way that no other aromatic can.
Fresh chillies and pimentos
Again, adding hot pepper to your dhal is not new—but, besides spiciness, peppers have a lot to offer with regards to flavour. Peppers that don’t go way up on the Scoville scale like jalapenos and pimentos are still packed with savoury goodness. We recommend chopping them and frying them along with your other chunkay ingredients. This way, even if you’re not a fan of spice, you won’t miss out on the flavour of peppers.
Acidic tomatoes can be a welcomed break from the thickness and density of dhal. We love throwing in chopped tomatoes towards the end of the cooking process of the dhal as they cook ever so slightly but still retain their plump juiciness. If you prefer, you can cook them at the start of your sauté in order to meld them more cohesively but still keep the acidity of the tomatoes.
Believe it or not, dried pig snout, smoked ham bone and salted fish are added by some to dhal. It seasons the dhal with an unmistakable salty flavour that cannot be replicated by another ingredient. It’s also a nice way to introduce texture and meat into what is usually a smooth, vegetarian dish.