Hi there!! If you are an Indian, and if you ever found yourself staring at your pantry looking at different dals – chana, moong, toor, masoor, urad etc (split/non-split, hulled, non-hulled) and feel kind of lost on how to use them all up; don’t worry, you are not alone, this post will give you a bird’s eye view on different ways to cook/process them.
Even if you are not an Indian, you are a beginner in the kitchen or aspiring vegan and you had a million questions while reviewing recipes or looking at Youtube videos like:
- Why does the recipe ask me to soak lentils?
- Which ones can I sprout?
- Can I pressure cook any lentil?
- What does roasting a lentil achieve? etc…
I hope I can help you find answers below.
But first, a brief understanding of nomenclature:
Let’s just get a basic understanding of these terms.
According to “On Food and Cooking” by Harold McGee, (a scientific bible for food researchers), he describes lentils so: “The Latin word for lentil, lens, gives us our word for a lentil-shaped, or double convex, piece of glass.” Based on that description, only our masoor dal looks like a lens.
So, technically speaking, all the Indian daals comes under the umbrella of Legumes or Pulses. Toor Dal belongs to the family of Pigeon Peas, Mung bean, and Urad dal (also called as black gram) come under legume genus Vigna and Chana dal comes from the bean family Cicer Arietinum.
But, I think I know why we use the word lentils on a colloquial basis, rather than legumes. It is because – the way they appear in our pantry looks very different from the way they appear in the plant.
If you take urad, toor, moong or chana – all of their skins have been removed and they are split to produce a somewhat lentil-like shape. To keep things simple, I plan on using the words lentils and legumes interchangeably in this post, although scientifically, they are slightly different.
The Indian term ‘Dal/dhal/daal’ refers to both the dry uncooked legume and also a cooked dish made with it – a thick, cooked stew.
Similarly, you will also see the words paruppu, pappu or bele which are the tamil, telugu, and kannada language equivalents of the Hindi word Dal (India is a land of many languages, after all). Again they all refer to both the dry version and the cooked stew version.
Now, on to the cooking part, or should I say: “denaturing the protein” part.
Different Ways to cook the legumes
Cooking the legumes with water, making them into a mush is probably the most popular way.
However, that is not the only way.
You can also process the legume via:
- Roasting + powdering
- Soaking + grinding
- Soaking, grinding + fermentation
- Soaking + Sprouting
The same Urad dal can be cooked in different ways to yield different textures like:
- Pressure cooking gives you a creamy dal makhani
- Fermenting gives you a soft, spongy idli
- Grinding and frying gives you a crispy vada.
Isn’t that amazing??!!
In order to understand how this is happening, let’s examine the different ways we can cook an Indian lentil/dal/legume:
Let us look at each process one by one.
1. Boil/Pressure Cook
Can you boil or pressure cook any daal? Yes, absolutely!! First of all, pressure cooking is just boiling on steroids – just a much faster way!! That too pressure cooking with an Instant Pot – it is a damn delight!!
Secondly, the devil is in the details. Most commonly boiled/ pressure cooked legumes are toor, masoor, chana and moong. The time needed to pressure cook will depend on the size of the daal. The smaller the dal, the lesser the time.
Also, Chana dal never gets mushy soft like Toor. You see – Toor is from the peas family which has more starchy content.
Urad dal gets slimy when pressure cooked. As you get familiar with cooking different lentils, you will pick up these nuances.
If you are running low on time to cook the dals, soaking them helps speed the process:
2. Soaking the dal
When you soak any legume in water for a few hours or overnight, first thing that happens is, it absorbs the water and expands in volume.
I studied the changes in volume after soaking lentils overnight:
- 1 cup Toor Dal becomes 2.5 cups
- 1 cup Chana Dal becomes 2.25 cups
- 1 cup Urad Dal becomes 2.25 cups
- 1 cup Moong Dal becomes 2.125 cups
With the legume now hydrated, it should boil/pressure cook much faster than its dry counterpart. This process especially makes sense for the larger dals – like chana and for beans like chickpeas, kidney beans, etc
Very rarely, will you ever find anyone asking to soak a small lentil like – split moong or masoor, which easily turns to mush within 5 minutes of pressure cooking anyways. So, no need for extra soaking. The exception is if they are going to cook it differently – e.g. – roast like halwa or fry like pakoda.
When you soak the lentil, you have 2 alternative cooking pathways to explore: Soak + grind (with or without fermentation) or Sprout. Let’s look at each of them in detail.
2.a.Grind the soaked legumes
When you soak the legume overnight, at one point it stops absorbing water. We now have a swollen legume, which can be ground and made digestible with heat, but with the addition of very little extra water.
This becomes a useful trick for cooks. You see, rather than you deciding “let me add 2 or 3 cups of water for 1 cup of dry lentils”; the lentil is now telling you – “I have drank enough water to hydrate myself. Just grind me up, then heat me up (via roasting, frying, etc)”…and you have yourself a high-density snack like vada, halwa or paruppu usili.
Steaming the soaked+ground lentil mix makes it behave like a grain. No more mushy, soft, disintegrating dals…Now we have solid, granular cooked legumes – see my Chana Dal laddu and steamed moong salad as examples.
2.b.Ferment the soaked legumes
The above step of soaking and grinding gives out great dishes like vada, pesarattu, etc. But, given the low-levels of water in the overall dishes (and high density), it makes it tougher for old people, or people with weak digestive systems to digest.
But in the wonderful world of Indian cuisine, they figured out that you can add 1 extra step to it – ferment and you get a batter that yields delicious, easily digestible dishes like idli or doklas. Remember, now the process has become:
Soak -> Grind -> Ferment
If all this seems too long a process for you, then don’t worry. Most Indian stores carry Idli, Dosa batter where the steps have already been done for you.
A few quick notes about legume fermentation. Hands down, Urad dal (black gram) is the queen of fermentation compared to the other lentils. The Urad dal needs no starter, grabs bacteria from the air and using lactic acid fermentation produces a slightly sour-tasting voluminous batter. You can also try and ferment other lentils, but they won’t fluff as much as Urad.
*A not-so-scientific tip here – you will notice when you soak urad dal, bubbles start to form at the top. This itself is a clue that it is most amenable to being fermented. You will see the same effect with fenugreek seeds too.
For traditional fermented doklas, made with chana dal, yogurt is used as a starter culture.
3. Sprouting Legumes
If you have the legume in it’s original form with hull and non-split; then soaking it and draining will yield sprouts in a few days.
You can, of course, eat them raw. Which is the most popular way of thinking about sprouts.
But I love cooked sprouts better. Maharastra has, hands down, one of the most tasty cooked sprout dishes I have ever tasted: Matki Usal, using sprouted moth beans. I also love to steam sprouts, and add it to chaats.
4. Roasting the Daal
Whenever you bake bread, fry falafels, or make crispy dosas, the lovely brown color, the wonderful aroma and the sharp rise in flavor happens because of Maillard reaction. For Maillard reaction to happen, you need proteins and sugar. It also happens more prominently at temperatures 285 F/140 C or above.
South Indians use this Maillard principle all the time when making Sambar powders, idli milagai podi and all kinds of flavoring powders.
They will roast the lentils directly on a pan (no water involved) on low heat (to prevent burning), but stirring constantly until it changes color to a golden brown and smells heavenly. At this point, the lentil starts to behave like a spice.
The roasted lentils along with other roasted spices, salt get powdered. This powder can be eaten along with rice, idli’s or used to flavor and thicken stews, vegetable curries etc.
Ok, if Maillard reaction is so awesome, why don’t we just roast all the dals this way and then boil/pressure cook them???
Unfortunately, you can’t do that – The roasted lentils become hard in texture. This makes it tougher – yes, you heard that right – tougher to cook. See the results for yourself in this real-life experiment of roasting the daal and cooking it.
Whenever roasting dal occurs, most recipes will then call to grind it after the roasting; reducing the size thereby making the cooking time reasonable.
However, if the legume is really small – e.g, split moong dal. You see, the normal pressure-cooking time is just 5 minutes. But roasting it (e.g. for pongal or dal payasam recipes) adds flavor and aroma. In order to compensate for the roasting, we have to add extra cooking time to the roasted lentils. In the case of pongal, the roasted moong dal now (post-roasting) matches the cooking time of rice (the other ingredient in the recipe) – which is 10-12 minutes. So, it all works out!!
I hope you found this overview of different ways of cooking legumes in the Indian cuisine useful. Have you tried making the recipes mentioned above? What is your favorite method? Please post in the description box below. I would love to hear from you!! If you want to read similar posts on Indian Ingredients, do check out:
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