Bean Cuisine II: Saag Masoor Dal

Masoor dal: picked over and washed, ready to be cooked. Unfortunately, the salmon-coral color does not survive the cooking process. The lentils dull down to a faded yellow color which is easily perked up by the addition of turmeric or other food-based coloring agents.

Or in English, Red Lentils with Greens.

Last night, we had Indian food to go with Zak’s bread, and it was a stunning success. The lightly cardamom-scented bread went fabulously with our menu: Chicken Vindaloo with Mangoes, Red Lentil Dal with Greens, Keema Sookh (Dry cooked minced lamb with green beans) and Cucumber and Mint Raita.

In addition to being the first official dinner thing with the friends, last night was also the first time I cooked in the downstairs kitchen, because this is the first time since we moved in that the countertops are installed, the gas is on and everything is hooked up.

The good news is the dinner got cooked and I didn’t even pull out one hair while doing it. The bad news is that the kitchen was designed badly, the particle board cabinets cannot safely hold most of my dishes and cookware without threatening to come out of the wall or break, the gas stove might have 3 BTU’s to its name (Okay, I am exaggerating. Maybe it has 12…) and there is inadequate lighting.

The good news is that we are completely redoing the entire thing, except for the Sub Zero refrigerator.

The bad news is that we are completely redoing the entire thing, and it will be forever before I can cook downstairs comfortably.

In this case, the good news outweighs the bad, so I will simply hang tight and cook upstairs on my electric stove that actually gets hotter than the gas stove.

Anyway, as the folks were coming over and it was Indian food night, I decided to cook some more of my back stock of beans; I feel that most Indian meals are incomplete without a dal dish of some sort. My last bean night was last Saturday (yeah, it took me a while to blog about it), so it had roughly been a week since my last foray into leguminous cookery, so it seemed reasonable.

So, I dragged myself down to the basement to look at my stock of Indian dals. I had a lot, but I decided on masoor dal, or red lentils for several reasons. They are quick-cooking, they don’t require soaking, they have a lovely, light flavor of their own and they cook up into a wonderful puree without needing my assistance or interference.

Up they came, and into the kitchen they went, where I sifted through them, picking out bits of lentil hull (massoor dal are small brown lentils that have been skinned to reveal the coral colored insides), straw, rock and other assorted debris. Then, I put them in a colander and rinsed them, and dropped them into a pot, covered them with water, and revved up the fire.

I grated a thumb-sized hunk of ginger into the pot using my microplane, and then ground up some fresh garam masala from fennel seeds, cumin, cinnamon, coriander, cloves, bay leaves and black pepper. I added a medium-sized pinch of the garam masala, and then a generous pinch of asafoetida to the pot, stirred and let the lentils alone while I started slicing a mountain of onions.

Ferula asafoetida, or in Hindi, hing, is a resinous spice that is used often in Indian bean cookery. It has a lot of uncomplimentary names, including “devil’s dung,” or “stinkasant,” which derive in part from its ugly appearance: in its unground form, it looks like nothing more than a clod of dirt. Mostly, the unflattering names refer to its scent; it smells powerfully of garlic that is somewhat past its prime, though it also has a somewhat medicinal tang lingering in it.

A member of the family Apiaceae, which also contains parsley, dill, coriander, carrot, cumin, anise and celery, the resin of asafoetida is obtained by bleeding the thick, milky juice present in the stems of the plant. It dries into a dark mass which is then either sold as is, or is ground and then packed into air-tight containers.

I always buy mine ground, since the one time I ground up asafoetida, I got some on my hands and smelled less than grand for the rest of the day.

While it may not smell good to a lot of people (I generally don’t mind it, myself) safoetida serves several functions in Indian cuisine. One, it is used in place of onion and garlic by very religiously observant Brahman; the two alliums are thought to ignite “the baser passions” and are thus avoided in cookery. Secondly, it is believed to help reduce the flatulence-causing potential of dried legumes.

Since I am not one to fear the ignition of baser passions, it is for its secondary properties that I use asafoetida; that, and the flavor it imparts to the lentils and beans it is cooked with. It gives an elusive fragrance and flavor that my palate identifies as essential “Indian,” and so I like adding a small amount of it to any dal I make.

At any rate, after the addition of the asafoetida, the lentils are left to cook on medium heat, uncovered, until they are mostly done. The only thing that I do in the meantime to them, is I skim the foam that bubbles up to the top, and add salt halfway through the cooking process.

In the meantime, I go forward on preparing the greens and the tarka.

What is a tarka, you ask?

A tarka is a method of flavoring Indian dishes that involves heating vegetable oil (mustard oil is popular) or ghee (clarified butter that has been prepared in a way that gives it a nutty flavor) in a pan and cooking flavoring elements in it until everything is browned and sizzling. Then, the entire panful of hot fat and other goodies is poured into the dish and stirred, right before serving. The fragrance and flavor this imparts to a dish, particularly to dal, which can be somewhat bland otherwise, is amazing.

The tarka I prepared was based upon ghee with well-browned onions, with chile peppers, garlic and ramp bulbs. To that I added whole mustard and cumin seeds, and I finished it with about four cups of greens: roughly chopped spinach and ramp greens cut in a thin chiffonade.

When I use such a highly fragrant and flavorful tarka, I always underseason my dal to some extent, which is why I used such a minimum of seasonings in cooking the lentils. This process of minimal seasoning early in cooking and then using a strong tarka results in very fresh, vibrant flavors that burst in the mouth like a symphonic sensory overload. Everything mingles beautifully, and it is all deceptively simple to do.

Think about it. You cook some lentils, which you basically ignore, and then you brown some onions, garlic, chiles and spices in a good amount of hot fat and then when that is done, you add some greens, let them wilt and scrape it all into your lentils.

And it is done.

It is simple enough to make me feel like a lazy cook, or perhaps a magician every time I do it. It seems to be some sort of trickery or sleight of hand that produces so much flavor in a humble lentil dish.

The addition of greens was this week’s innovation: I used spinach and the last of the ramp greens, because that is what I had around. Kale (especially lacinato kale) would have been good, as would mustard greens or collards. Plain spinach alone would have been too mild; it was the ramps that really punched up the flavor. I liked the contrast in color and texture that it made with the lentil puree and I really liked the garlicky fragrance that the ramp greens imparted to the dish.

I’d make it again, except I used up all the masoor dal in the house, and I am not yet allowed to buy more beans. It will have to wait again until next ramp season, I guess. By next spring, I might be able to purchase some more legumes with impunity.

Let’s hope so, anyway.

The finished dal. After adding the tarka with the greens, turn the heat down to low or remove from the heat to preserve the fresh color and flavor of the greens. Chicken vindaloo with mangoes is in the wok in the background.

Saag Masoor Dal


1 pound red lentils, picked over, rinsed and drained
1 1/2″ cube fresh ginger, peeled and grated
1/2 teaspoon ground garam masala (you can buy this pre-mixed and ground if you like)
1 big pinch ground asafoetida/hing
1 tablespoon ground turmeric
1/2 tablespoon ground sweet paprika (optional)
salt to taste
water as needed
3 tablespoons ghee
1 large onion, peeled and sliced paper-thin
4 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced paper-thin
1-3 fresh chiles, washed and sliced thinly on the diagonal (seeded if you like)
12 fresh ramp bulbs, washed, trimmed and sliced paper thin (optional–if no ramps available, use more garlic, or perhaps a single leek)
1 tablespoon whole mustard seeds
1 tablespoon whole cumin
3/4 pound fresh spinach or other greens, washed, dried and roughly chopped
2 cups fresh ramp greens, washed, dried and cut into a 1/4 inch chiffonade


After picking over, washing and draining lentils, put them in a pot with enough water to cover by 1 inch, along with the ginger, garam masala and asafoetida and bring to a boil on high heat. Turn down heat to medium, and simmer uncovered. Skim foam from the top of the lentils until it stops bubbling up, and when they are halfway cooked, add salt to taste. Add water as necessary until lentils completely soften and begin to break down.

Allow lentils to completely break down into a slightly lumpy puree; some of the lentils break down faster than others. This is good: it gives the dal more textural interest than a perfect puree would.

At this point, the lentils are a kind of pale, faded shade of yellow. To perk up the color, stir in the turmeric and if you wish, some paprika. This is a common practice in Indian cookery to give foods a more appetizing color.

To prepare the tarka, in a heavy skillet, melt ghee. Add onions, and a sprinkle of salt. Cook on medium heat, stirring constantly, until the onions are a dark golden color. At that point, add the chiles, garlic and ramp bulbs, and keep cooking (don’t stop stirring) until the onions are a medium reddish brown, the chiles are browning on the edges and the garlic and ramps have turned golden. Add spices at this point, still stirring, and continue cooking until they become fragrant and the mustard seeds have started to pop. At this point, add all of the greens and stir to coat with the ghee, allowing them to wilt a bit.

As soon as the greens wilt, add them to the hot dal, and stir everthing together. Taste and correct for salt.

This dal is particularly good when served with yogurt or a raita, and of course, bread.


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  1. Well, as I’ve been ratted out with the bison and ramps post, I guess it’s no use:

    I’m never ever going to be able to hoard all of Barbara’s cooking from the rest of the world by trying to play off of her underdeveloped sense of gastronomic genius, and telling her he cooking is awful and I have to save her reputation by eating it all up. 😉

    It’s a trite joke anyway.

    Calling the evening’s fare a stunning success is an understatement.

    So that was lamb? I wondered briefly, but I had other things to concentrate on, (like stuffing my face.)

    And to say that Barbara had a large amount of beans is an understatement. After several evenings of searching cabinets for something to cook while house sitting for them, and finding these containers of beans lining the cupboards, I think I can safely say that she has more containers of beans that Imelda Marcos had boxes of shoes, (Well, there’s an obscure reference.)

    Anyway, thanks for the wonderful dinner. Good food, good friends…Bliss…

    Comment by Dan Trout — April 23, 2005 #

  2. Well, as Vertamae Grosvener’s (author of “Vibration Cooking,” a cookbook that was and is a great influence on me) daughter said of her mother, “My Mamma cooks like Aretha Franklin sings,” so shall it be said of me that, “She loves beans like Imelda Marcos loves shoes.”

    Yes, it is true.

    I am the Queen of Beans.

    The Lady of the Lentils.

    The Priestess of Peas.

    The Amazon of the Azuki.

    I am known by many names and titles.

    Such is the life of one obsessed.

    It all comes from my fascination with peasant food from all cultures and lands. It probably all started because I grew up eating peasant food, and for all that I went to culinary school and can throw down and do nouvelle cuisine and haute cuisine with the best of them, and I do like to eat the fancy food now and again, I don’t love it enough to make it my life.

    Fancified food is lovely, but it doesn’t speak to my soul the way a steaming hot bowl of beans does, with some cornbread in the pan, and a side of greens with pork.

    You can take the girl out of the hills, but never will the hills come out of the girl, I suppose. And at heart, I am a barefoot hillbilly farmer girl.

    So, I think my greatest skill lies in interpreting and elevating the peasant foods of all nations (though I am most fond of the poor folks’ food of Asia) to a place where people can see that it is the best food on earth. It is what nurtures us, satisfies us and puts us in touch with the earth at its most fundamental.

    It is poetry on a plate, writ in flavor, color and texture. It is art, not something to either be ignored or taken for granted.

    It is the soul of humanity, disguised as a simple bowl of rice and beans.

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — April 24, 2005 #

  3. Barbara,
    Sorry I haven’t had time to write you properly and I am getting caught up with my backlog of your entries. My friend Pankaj points out that Hing is usually the flavor difference between when Indian people cook Indian food and White people cook Indian food.

    (the one that is quasi-related to you, living in Hell-A)

    Comment by oro3030 — April 30, 2005 #

  4. Hello, Dan to whom I am related!

    No worries about not having time to write–I think I probably owe you email at this point.

    I will never forget Pankaj being so astounded that not only did I know what hing was, but how to use it and why, when you and he were visiting us in Maryland.

    He is right, in part. Not all Northern Indian people use hing, though it is more common among Hindus. The Muslims of Northern India do not use it as much, if at all, which surprised me. It is much more common in Southern India.

    Another thing that distinquishes the flavor of Indian food cooked by Indians and the food cooked by white people is that white folks have trouble browning the onions enough. It is something that my clients appreciated about me–that I was not afraid to deeply brown the onions.

    In Muslim Northern India, it is browned onions that really distinquish the cuisine.

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — April 30, 2005 #

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