Chana dal (also spelled “daal” or “dahl”) is an Indian comfort food. It is vegetarian legume dish that can be made thick or thin, depending on its role in the meal. It is served all over India, and every region has its own combination of seasonings, additions and level of spicy heat. This version leans toward the Northern Indian style and lacks the fiery heat and tartness of Southern versions. Just before serving, it is topped with a tadka ("tempering," in Hindi) of infused olive oil, garlic and whole spices.
Rinse the chana in plenty of water to remove excess starch, soil and small stones that may have found their way into the package.
Place the rinsed chana, water, salt, turmeric and bay leaves in the 4-qt. pan. Bring to a boil on high heat. The chana will foam. Stir the foam back into the water. Reduce the heat to low, cover and cook for 1½ hours at a gentle simmer. Check frequently for water. Chana soaks it up rapidly and you may need to add more.
Take a bite of the chana. It should be softened but holding its shape. Dice the tomato and zucchini and add to the chana. Also add the seasonings: coriander, cumin, cayenne pepper. Cook for 30 minutes.
Mash the chana with the back of your spoon. How much you mash depends on your preference. Some people prefer chana mostly smooth, others with more texture.
Prepare the tadka. In the microwave-proof custard dish, put the cumin, black cumin, mustard seeds and the crushed or slivered garlic. Break the chili pods into 10 or 12 small pieces and add them to the dish. Pour the 2 tbsp. of olive oil over the seasonings. Place the dish in a microwave and cook on high for 15 seconds. Stir. Cook 15 more seconds. The oil will sizzle and the garlic will become fragrant.
Stir the tadka into the chana and serve immediately with a garnish of chopped fresh coriander. Serves 4 to 6 people.
Traditional Indian cooks use clarified butter (ghee) for the tadka, and serve individual portions with ghee floated on top. It makes the dal taste richer, but also adds cholesterol and saturated fat. Traditional Indian cooks would float the tadka on top of the chana dal in the serving dish to enhance the visual presentation of the dish. Watch for split yellow peas being mislabeled as chana dal. Although they look similar, they are not the same thing. Chana looks like miniature split chick peas, almost an apple shape, as opposed to the smooth, half spheres of split peas. Cooking times can vary depending on humidity and the age of the dal. Like any legume, older dal takes longer to cook. Low and slow cooking will prevent the dal from foaming up and making a mess of your stove. If you can stay in the kitchen and watch it closely, cook it at a higher heat for a faster meal. Try toasting the dal in a dry heavy frying pan before cooking it for a mellow, rich flavor. Chana can be soaked overnight like any legume. It doesn't make it cook any faster, but does reduce the amount of water it absorbs as it cooks. If the chana is thinner than you would like it as it nears the end of its cooking, take the lid off and allow steam to escape until it thickens. You can add any combination of vegetables to dal as it cooks. You can try chopped spinach, green mango, roasted garlic, bell pepper and grated carrots. Try Southern Indian seasonings. These include tamarind juice, curry leaves and a lot more chili. Chana, and all of the whole and ground spices used in this recipe, can be found at Indian and Pakistani groceries. When shopping online, be sure the company is selling chana, not yellow split peas labeled as chana. Hing, also sold as as asafoetida, is a pungent sap from a plant native to Iran. It is sold in Indian and Pakistani groceries in lumps and as a powder, which is the most convenient way to use it.
Vary the cayenne pepper according to your taste. Some people find it unpleasantly hot and want a lot less; others may want more. Consider your guests and their tastes.