Across the internet, you’ll read many different descriptions of dal, but the information can become pretty overwhelming. When translating terms between cultures, important details can get lost; we’re here to bridge that gap.
Although Americans often use the terms “legumes,” “pulses,” and “beans” interchangeably, they have distinct meanings that could help you better navigate a recipe, the grocery store aisle, and the world of dals.
A legume refers to any plant from the Fabaceae family. A pulse is an edible seed from the legume. Under the umbrella of pulses, there are beans, lentils, and peas. You’ll often hear dals translated as lentils, but in Indian culture, any split or whole pulse is called a dal. Split just means, the pulse has been halved.
When you order dal at a restaurant, expect a warm bowl of flavorful pulses. Given how many different kinds of beans, peas, and lentils there are, it’s appropriate to infer there are many variations in dal.
So Dals Are Just Pulses?
When someone offers you a bowl of dal, they’re likely referring to dals that have been cooked into a soup or stew-like consistency rather than the raw pulses themselves. Dals in Indian food are made by boiling a pulse in water and combining it with spices or vegetables that fit the flavor profile you’re looking for.
Dals are everyday Indian comfort food that are easy to prepare for small and large gatherings. Indian dal recipes are light on your digestive system, a great source of protein, and, more often than not, vegan. Dals can be prepared quickly and enjoyed by anybody who’s in the mood for a warm and satisfying meal.
With even the most basic knowledge of pulses, you can make a variety of dal dishes that offer flavors you’re already familiar with.
Whether you have cooked dal before or not, we have the 5 basic dals to get you started!
#1 Chana Dal
The pulse behind Chana Dal is recognized as split Bengal gram or split chickpeas. Chana dal appear as really small chickpeas and usually come deskinned. The lentil has a nutty flavor that pairs well with spice for a warm and comforting meal.
While turmeric, chili, garam masala, and tomato cook in a pot with your split Bengal gram, heat a pan with oil, cumin, mustard seed, chopped garlic, and dried red chilies. Combine the two mixtures once your dal is fully cooked and your garlic is browned. Serve your Chana dal in a bowl with lemon juice and cilantro on top and enjoy.
Chana dals can also be used to make dry curries, flatbreads (Puran Poli), vegetable balls (Koftas), and vegetarian pancakes (Cheelas). Depending on your recipe, you can soak split Bengal gram for a few hours before cooking to speed up the process, but if you’re cooking in an Instant Pot, don’t even bother; these pulses will cook through fast enough.
#2 Masoor Dal
One of the most common types of lentils is Masoor Dal! The whole or split red lentils used to make masoor dal are best known for their short cooking time and their mild, subtly sweet flavor. Since split red lentils are soft, they’re great in soups and curries. Masoor dals are prepared similarly to chana dal, but the natural flavors of the pulses make their final tastes different.
Cooking Tip: A trick of the trade is to salt your lentils after they’re cooked to avoid creating a tough exterior.
Masoor dals are used in aromatic curries, rich soups, dips, hearty salads, and many rice dishes. Unlike most other beans, you don’t have to soak red lentils before cooking. Whole lentils typically take 15-20 minutes to cook but split red lentils only take 5-7 minutes.
#3 Mung (Moong) Dal
We’re working our way through the rainbow. Mung dal are a tricky pulse to classify. Whole mung beans are green, but when split, they’re referred to as mung dal and resemble yellow split peas. Either way, the pulse makes for a buttery and earthy tasting dish everyone enjoys.
Mung dal is often cooked with sesame oil, garlic, ginger, turmeric, and shallots. You can cook everything together at once or first temper your spices in hot oil in a process known as tadka.
Mung dal cook quickly and are great added into your soups, salads, or dips. Not only are they convenient, but they’re also high in protein, fiber, antioxidants, and phytonutrients!
#4 Urad Dal
The pulses behind urad dal are black gram lentils. When used whole, urad dal has a distinctly more robust earthy flavor than the split and skinned variety.
To prepare a thick, refreshing, and slightly spiced urad dal, you can use garlic, fresh ginger, shredded coconut, curry powder, and diced tomatoes, and top it all off with a squeeze of lemon.
When not cooked in water, urad dals are widely used in India for papadums or a thin, crisp seasoned dough that’s fried or cooked with dry heat. Black gram is a harder lentil than others, so it will take longer to cook. In this case, soaking ahead of time or soaking overnight is definitely recommended.
#5 Toor Dal
Toor dal, also known as split yellow pigeon peas, is one of India’s most widely used dals. Like chana dal, toor dal can be cooked and served relatively quickly, making it great for every day.
You can use cumin seeds, garlic, red chili powder, and other seasonings in the tadka you prepare for your toor dal. We highly recommend adding turmeric powder to brighten up the already yellow dal and add some additional health benefits.
Toor dal remains perfectly intact while cooking but can overcook very quickly, so be sure to keep an eye on them.
Serve A Satisfying Dal
You can prepare your dal however you’d like; there are no rules in the kitchen. There are also so many more dals to cook with than those listed above; you can find a more extensive list on our blog. How you cook your dal depends on your preferences. Do you like a saltier or more refreshing taste, a thicker or thinner texture? Prepare your dal to you and your family’s liking.
When you have a warm and tasty pot of dal to serve, pair it with a bowl of rice or a flatbread for dipping. Dal is filling on its own, but if you’re not into liquid meals, you can easily enjoy it as more of a sauce than a soup.
Enjoy your dal knowing that it’s an enriching meal filled with nutrients essential to your health. Make dal every week. It’s not only delicious but healthy, budget-friendly, and easy to whip together in under thirty minutes.