When the bitter winds blow and the skeletal trees rattle their bony branches, I find refuge in making dal, a comforting bean dish that fills my stomach and soul with warmth. Dal has its roots in the Indian subcontinent where it blossoms in many variations according to regional tastes and ingredients.
While I have no roots of my own in India, I am grateful for the many teachers whose work has allowed me to recreate classic Indian dishes in my own kitchen. Through their cookbooks, websites, and videos (see below), Julie Sahni, Bharti Kirchner, Vah Chef, and Meera Sodha have generously allowed me a peer over their shoulders as fragrant dishes sizzled away on their stovetops.
As my own cumin, curry leaves and mustard seeds sputtered away in my skillet this winter, I was drawn to throw some spicebush berries into the hot oil that flavors the dal. I pared back the other spices to get a clear read on the spicebush and was delighted with the bright, sunny flavor that bounced across the lentils...
After an unfortunate chomp into a whole berry, I set about experimenting to find the best way to work the berries into the dal. Smashing them before their bath in the oil yielded the best results, with only a few berries needed to flavor the dish. Exposing the inside of the seed to the oil tempered their strong flavor. The floral notes of the smashed spicebush and the buttery crunch of the mustard seeds blended seamlessly in the dal!
This is a recipe that I’ve adapted and tweaked over the years inspired by the dal recipes of Meera Sodha, Julie Sahni, and Vah Chef. It features the classic trio of onion, garlic, and ginger with an extra hit of mustard seeds whose crunch and buttery flavor complements the spicebush berries.
To save a little time, I like to prep the onion, garlic, and ginger while the dal is coming to a boil.
I highly recommend freezing your ginger ahead of time in 1-inch chunks. Grating frozen ginger, as opposed to fresh, is easier, tidier, and creates a uniform fine grate.
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