Vegetarian cuisine in India has evolved over the centuries and has one of the most elaborate displays of entrees in the world. In a vegetarian diet, the primary source of proteins is 'Dals'. 'Dal' is Hindi term for lentils, beans and peas. The 'Dals', besides being protein rich, have the added benefit of being high in fiber and naturally low in fat. Serve dals with bread and/or rice, or pair it with a salad and vegetable to make a complete and nutritional balanced meal.

Dal is an integral part of everyday cooking through out India. In the south, yellow split peas are cooked with vegetables and a special spice blend to make a delicious vegetable bean stew called 'Sambhar'. It is enjoyed with rice and bean dumplings as well as Idli. In the north, chickpeas are cooked with special garam masala to make a tasty entree called as 'Chole.' In the western part of the country, a sweet and sour yellow split pea soup called as 'Aamti' is enjoyed everyday with bread and rice.

Dal is roasted before cooking in the eastern part of India. Each region has its unique preference for certain dal and the spice blend that goes with it.

Frankly, beans, lentils or peas are quite bland and tasteless if you were to eat them plain. Spices have quite an essential role in preparinging dals - besides adding zest to the bland beans, spices also aid in their digestion!

There is a unique technique that brings a dal alive. It is known as "tarka" or spice infused oil which is added to the cooked dal. This is how you make "tarka" - A teaspoon of oil is heated with spices as per your liking, like cumin seeds, mustard seeds, ginger, garlic and curry leaves. All are toasted together. (Personally, I just like to add cumin seeds and garlic to this hot oil).

Lentils and beans are notorious for the lengthy cooking time they take. Pre-soaking the beans cuts down on cooking time considerably. Typically, I soak beans overnight in large quantities and later freeze them in small freezer bags. This way, instead of reaching for a can of beans, I just have to thaw a bag of frozen beans. A pressure cooker is a very handy tool to use in cooking Dals. In India, having a pressure cooker is equivalent to having an oven in the western kitchen.

If you are new to cooking dals , here are some helpful hints:

  1. As with any new food, start with small portions so that you get used to it. Then gradually increase the quantity.
  2. Improperly cooked dal is very difficult to digest. It is perhaps better to over-cook the dal but never under-cook it.
  3. If you are serious about cooking beans or peas, a pressure cooker is a good investment. It saves time and money in the long run.
  4. Spices are essential to give flavor to dals as well as their digestion.

After coming to US I have adapted various dal recipes to the western food style. Dals taste delicious with rice or Indian bread. But I like to enjoy it as a hearty soup with garlic bread or lentil vegetable stew with sour dough bread. Sometimes I make a complete meal by adding ravioli or linguine to it. So if you are thinking of tightening your waist or your wallet, dal is definitely a healthy alternative to try!!

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Kidney Beans with cinnamon

1 can kidney beans
1 teaspoon oil
1 tomato, diced
1 onion, diced
2 one inch cinnamon sticks
½ teaspoon red chili powder ( as per taste)
1 teaspoon ginger, peeled and minced
salt to taste

Heat a pan and add oil. Throw in ginger and cinnamon sticks. Sauté for a minute. Mix in tomatoes and onions. Cook on medium heat for 8-10 minutes.
Rinse kidney beans in water. Add kidney beans to tomato onion mix. Add ½ cup water. Cook on low heat for 15 minutes. Serve with plain rice

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Usal Misal (Bean soup)

½ cup kidney beans
½ cup black eyed beans
½ green mung beans
½ cup lentils
½ cup garbanzo beans
1 tablespoon oil
2 onions, diced
1 tablespoon ginger, minced
1 tablespoon garlic minced
2 tablespoon tomato paste
1 teaspoon cumin powder
1 teaspoon coriander powder

In a big bowl add all beans. Pour 8 cups of hot water . Cover and keep overnight. Drain water and rinse well. Add 4 cups of water , cook on medium heat for 40 minutes or cook it in a pressure cooker for 8 -10 minutes. Keep aside.

In a thick bottomed pan heat oil. Add ginger and garlic. Saute for a 2 minutes. Throw in the chopped onions. Cook on medium heat till they turn a golden brown. Add tomato paste, cumin and coriander powder. Mix in the cooked beans and add 1 cup of water. Simmer for 15 minutes.

Serve with crispy chow mien noodles, chopped onions and cilantro.

Hema's hints:

1. You may substitute any beans in this recipe.
2. For convenience you may use only canned beans


Dal Ravioli

This is a fusion between pasta and dal. Instead of the tomato sauce or pesto sauce, I decided to use the cooked beans as the sauce