The Perfect Tarka Dal

Too many recipes are undeservedly entitled “the perfect x.” Like kebab shops in South London, all of which claim to offer the best product, and none of which are transparent about whose palate deemed their doner worthy of such praise! I always suspect that if I were to inspect a little closer I’d find some asterisk leading to a minuscule admission:

*according to my mum

I’ve never got close enough to verify my hunch…

But one place that I do think deserves to boast such self-declared plaudits is Felicity Cloake’s How to Cook the Perfect… column in the Guardian.

If you’re not familiar with the column, each week Felicity takes on a particular food or drink and attempts to create the perfect version of it. What I love most is the fact that she talks you through the whole process, dipping into the history of the dish, explaining some of the differing philosophies behind the recipes, comparing the pros and cons of various chefs’ approaches, and ultimately creating a hybrid recipe that is usually quite achievable for the home cook, and almost always brilliant!

So in addition to providing solid and dependable recipes, this column really helps me to understand food and to learn why things work (or don’t work!) the way they do. It means that if my preferences differ slightly from the author’s, I can usually find in the column enough information to help me know how to adjust the recipe for my taste. It also means I can benefit from the wisdom of multiple chefs condensed into one place. If I’m ever trying to decide between multiple recipes, or create a recipe myself, I will consult this column first to understand some of the science (for want of a better word). And even if I end up going with someone else’s recipe in the end, I do so armed with knowledge I would not have had otherwise.

In short – whatever you’re cooking, I highly recommend you check whether this column has covered it first!

Anyway, this week I had a craving for dal, and so I turned back to Felicity’s trusty recipe, which I’ve made many times and which has never failed me yet. We often make this in large batches and keep bags of it in the freezer, to whip out and reheat either as a side for a curry, or as an easy bit of nutritious comfort food. It’s not really the most sophisticated-looking of foods, but there’s something strangely alluring and photogenic about the vibrant yellow against the brown-red tinged tarka, the colours of which are boosted by clean white basmati. And in terms of simple warming dishes for the colder months, I’d struggle to think of something I’d rather eat.

If I’m planning to freeze it, I usually stop the initial cooking at 1.5 hours and then adjust the thickness as required when I reheat it. Sometimes I add in a whole chilli during the reheat, but I often find that the flavours have developed enough in the freezer that I don’t really need to use the whole chillies. When adding the tarka (shallots and spices –  which should always be made fresh) you can quite easily adjust the heat to taste.

So do check out Felicity’s column, and here’s her recipe for the perfect dal.

Ingredients

For the dal (serves 4):

400g mung dal (skinned yellow split mung beans)
4 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
4cm piece of root ginger, peeled and cut into 4
1 tbsp turmeric
4 small green chillies, 2 finely chopped, 2 left whole

For the tarka: 

2 tbsp ghee or groundnut oil
2 shallots, finely sliced
1 tbsp cumin seeds
1 tsp mustard seeds
1 tsp crushed chilli
Fresh coriander, chopped to serve

Method

Wash the dal until the water runs clear. Drain and put in a large pan. Cover with 2 litres of cold water. Bring to the boil and skim off any scum from the surface.

Add the garlic, ginger, turmeric, chopped chillies and a pinch of salt. Decrease the heat and cover, leaving the lid slightly ajar. Simmer very gently for 1½ hours, stirring occasionally, until the dal has broken down and become creamy.

Add boiling water or reduce dal further to achieve your preferred consistency and season to taste. Then add the whole chillies and simmer for 15 mins.

Meanwhile, heat the oil in a frying pan over a medium high heat and add the shallots. Stir until golden and beginning to crisp, then add the dried spices and cook for a couple of minutes until the mustard seeds start to pop. Tip over the dal, stir in, and top with chopped coriander. Serve with plain rice or flatbreads.

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