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Perfect dal is all about tadka, baghar, vagharne, chonk, phodni or…..just call it tempering !!

about ajoy

i’ve been a chef for over three decades now! i trained in chennai and started off with the taj hotel group. i’ve owned nilgiri’s indian restaurant in sydney for over 15 years. i’m on a mission to dispel the myth that indian food is no more than a ‘curry in a hurry’! come with me as i try and educate. indian food is my passion (alongside cricket!) and i’m enjoying exploring the new social media to fulfil this passion! i’ve also published cookery books, been on tv, the radio, won awards! now i’m also moving into making cookery videos. these are simple and easy to follow and don’t go on for hours like some Bollywood movies!

So, what is it that makes a good dal become an exceptional dal?

Well, the Gujaratis call it vagharne, the Punjabis call it tadka, the inhabitants of Uttar Bharat call it chonk, the Hyderabadis call it baghar, the Maharashtrians call it phodni and the . . . well, there are at least 25 other versions of this technique and in English we’d call it ‘tempering’.

ingredients used for adding the extra ‘oomph’

In India the actual process of tempering is the same in every state, although some of the ingredients may change because of their availability, or lack thereof, within each state, but the end result never changes which is to get a “wow” factor into the dish.

A simple dal dish is the best way to demonstrate how great tempering is.

The Southern Indians eat their dal with rice while in the north it is an excellent accompaniment with roti, or bread. You can, of course, eat yours with anything you want and as a vegetarian, if you have it with bread or rice it creates a perfect meal full of protein.

mung dal

A Northern dal dish is called mung dal tadka whereas the South Indians call it paruppu (well, that is what my wife calls it who hails from the south!). Today we are using paytham paruppu and giving it a talichu.

mung dal tadka

paytham paruppu with ‘talichu’


2 cups moong dal (mung lentils)
8 cups cold water (tap water)
1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder
1 tablespoon vegetable oil

clockwise from left to right: vegetable oil, mung dal, turmeric and water

step 1: Wash and drain lentils.

wash & drain lentils

step 2: Add turmeric and oil to the lentils along with 8 cups of water and bring water to the boil.

add turmeric and oil and cook the lentils

step 3: Cook lentils until soft, add the salt, turn off the heat and set aside.

mung dal should be soft to touch when cooked

mung dal, cooked, soft, salted and ready for the tempering!!

Now for the tadka or ‘tempering’:

3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/2 teaspoon asafoetida powder
1 teaspoon ground chilli
salt, to taste
juice of half a lemon
2-3 fresh coriander leaves

clockwise, from left to right: vegetable oil (centre), cumin seeds, asafoetida, chilli powder, salt, lemons & fresh coriander


step 1. For tadka, or ‘tempering’, heat oil in a pan and let it smoke, remove from the heat and crackle the cumin seeds.

heat oil in a pan

add the cumin seeds

step 2. Add the asafoetida and then chilli powder.

add the asafoetida

step 4. Pour the hot oil (this is called the ‘tempering’) on top of the cooked lentils.

pour the tempering on the hot dal

step 5. Add lemon juice and the coriander leaves and serve immediately!!

add lemon juice & fresh coriander

For talichu or ‘tempering’:
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 teaspoon black mustard seeds
1/2 teaspoon asafoetida powder
2-3 fresh green chillies, roughly chopped
2 sprigs fresh curry leaves
salt, to taste
juice of half a lemon

clockwise, from left to right: vegetable oil (centre), mustard seeds, asafoetida, fresh green chillies, fresh curry leaves, salt & lemons


step 1. In a pan, heat the oil and let it smoke. Remove from the heat.

heat oil

step 2. Crackle the black mustard seeds (by adding to the hot oil!).

crackle the mustard seeds

step 3. Add the asafoetida.

add the asafoetida

step 4. Then add the chopped/slit green chillies.

add chopped/slit chillies

step 5. Place curry leaves on top of cooked lentils and pour the hot oil over.

place fresh curry leaves on top of the hot dal

pour the hot tempering over the dal and curry leaves

step 6. Add lemon juice and serve immediately.

squeeze lemon juice on top and serve immediately

Remember the following when cooking lentils:
1. Never soak the lentils. Wash and cook them immediately.
2. Start cooking the lentils in cold water, this helps them cook from the inside, out. As the water comes to the boil the heat slowly penetrates through the lentils, thereby making them soft.
3. Add the turmeric and oil to the lentils as soon as the pot is placed on the heat. This makes any impurities rise to the surface and the oil prevents the froth from overflowing. Do not discard the froth if there are no impurities.
4. Add the salt after the lentils are cooked and soft. If added at the beginning, the salt, prolongs the cooking and may also prevent the lentils from getting soft.

Remember the following when tempering:

1. The oil must be smoking and away from the heat when adding the spices.
2. The spices must be added as soon as possible but, and this is essential, one after the other. Adding the spices alternately allows them to crackle and release their flavors into the oil.
3. Never add the curry leaves to the hot oil, they will turn black and may even cause the oil to splatter. Instead, place the leaves on the cooked lentils and then pour the hot oil on top of the leaves as shown in the picture in steps 4 & 5.
4. Add the lemon juice just before serving, this helps bring out the flavors and brightens the colour of the dal!!

Serve it accompanied with a roti for the northern version, or with some boiled rice if it is the southern version, or do what my son and I do, which is so simple and yet so delicious. We just have it as a ‘soup’ on its own. Superb!

father & son enjoying a big bowl of dal!!

Save the roti and the rice for kozhi milagu chettinad or murgh kali mirch!

And there we have it, folks!

Anah Daata Sukhi Bhaava!!!

Two of my favorite desserts and . . . they are both Indian !!

As a child growing up in Hyderabad, my favorite dessert was puran poli and Aai would make enough to last a few days, or so she thought!

Puran poli was my lunch, it was also my ‘afternoon tea’ and yes, you guessed it, dinner was definitely PP!! PP was over and done with in 2 days!

This routine lasted for nearly two decades and then, when I started working at the Taj in the early 80’s in Delhi, I had the privilege of  working in the ‘cold kitchen’. This was the place where all the salads, the cold cuts, the terrines, the patés, and the vegetable carvings, were created and I loved every bit of my “stay” in that kitchen.

But there was one more reason why I really enjoyed the garde manger. Because it was here that all the gulab jamoons, and the rosogullas, and the chum chums, and the gajar ka halwa would be stored for all the functions that were to take place on a given day. What heaven!

It had a very large cool room. So, just before my training started every afternoon my job was to clean the cool room and rearrange it.

This is what I looked forward to as I cleaned (in both senses of the word, or ‘polished off’ is perhaps more fitting!): I wolfed down three gulab jamoons on entry, three more half way through the cleaning process, and maybe a few more just before leaving the cool room.

Truptir bhavathi! This Sanskrit term, meaning happy and content, was me in that cool room. After my dessert snacks I was now ready to start my training in the garde manger!! This routine lasted for nearly a year!! (And no, folks, my waistline didn’t suffer as I was working so hard elsewhere, cleaning a garde manger, even with my little, sweet sustenances it was all burned off!)

I then moved to Bangalore and got hooked on mishti doi and sandesh made by none other than KC Das.

On my day off from work the sequence was: lunch at “The Only Place”, followed by mishti doi and sandesh at KC Das. The evening was spent at the “Ramada Pub”.

There was no money left over for any dinner after this, or for any. . .!! What a diet!

Well, as I moved up the ladder at the Taj and was given more responsibilities this meant that my dessert eating diminished and my days off became non-existent, so I simply had no time for any of the above!

I started to enjoy the in-house mithai made by none other than my friend, Mittan Lal. He was more of a ‘savoury’ halwai who was superb at making samosas, kachoris, and other ‘tea-time’ snacks.

His repertoire of Indian sweets, I believe, was restricted to simple ones such as gulab jamoon and gajar ka halwa until this halwai from Gwalior made kesar pista kulfi and moong dal halwa for a wedding reception and, boy!, I am still addicted to this amazing combination of a ‘hot’ pudding served with the best hand-made ice-cream on the planet!

So, here is the step-by-step recipe of moong dal halwa, my way!

moong dal halwa

[Okay, we all know, it’s known as halwa in the north, sheera in the centre and pongal in the south and halva, here, in downtown Sydney, anyway, whatever it’s known as locally it’s still fabulous and served with that kulfi, out of this world!!]


1.  150 g moong dal

2.  150 ml milk (full-fat)

3.  100 g sugar (I prefer to use raw sugar)

4.  100 g ghee (and if you really feel like cooking, here’s my recipe for ghee!)

5.  1/2 g saffron threads

6.  1 tsp freshly ground green cardamom pods

7.  2 tbs slivered almonds, roasted in a moderate oven till golden

ingredients from left to right: moong dal soaked in water, ghee, sugar, green cardamom pods, saffron, almonds & milk (centre)

grind the cardamom pods with a spoonful of sugar

you should have a fine powder that looks like this

slice the almonds into thin slivers

roast in the oven, or in a pan, over medium heat till golden & crunchy


1.  Soak the moong dal (mung lentils) in 4 cups of water for about 4 hours.

soaked & drained moong dal

2.  Then drain and grind them to a semi-coarse, semolina-like, consistency.

you know the dal is ready for grinding when you can pinch it in half with your fingers

grind to a fine paste in a blender

the ground moong dal should look like this

3.  Heat the ghee in a thick-bottomed pan and let it come almost to smoking point, then add the ground dal, reduce the heat and start cooking till it is almost caramelised and smells ‘sweet’ and turns golden.

add ghee to a thick-bottomed pan

allow it to reach smoking point

add the ground dal, stirring constantly

cook the dal gently over medium heat

as the dal cooks, it starts to caramelise

the ghee starts to bubble

4.  In another thick-bottomed pan, bring the milk to a boil, add the sugar and let dissolve. Add the saffron and infuse. Keep hot.

meanwhile heat the milk in another pan

add saffron threads

add sugar

bring to a boil so the sugar dissolves and the saffron flavours the milk

5.  Gradually add the sweetened hot milk to the caramelised dal and fold gently over low heat.

now the dal is ready for the sweetened milk

add the sweetened milk to the dal

the mixture will bubble as the milk is folded into the dal

fold gently

soon all the milk should be absorbed into the dal

6.  Keep folding till all the milk is absorbed and the ghee leaves the sides of the pan.

once the milk is absorbed, the ghee will leave the sides of the pan

7.  Add the ground green cardamom and fold gradually.

add the ground cardamom & fold

8.  Serve hot, sprinkled with the roasted almonds and pista kulfi!!

fold well till the halwa is ready

voilà! moong dal halwa sprinkled with roasted almonds

As for my other favourite, kesar (saffron) pista kulfi, well, if you really want to make your own, you may have to do a class. . .!!

Anah Daata Sukhi Bhava!!

I’ve bought the dried beans and lentils….now what?

Most classes at my restaurant get booked out, but not the class on beans and lentils (lentils are generally known as dal in India)!!

Beans or lentils? Read this blog to clear up the confusion!

It was not until 2003 we realised that a dedicated class on beans and lentils was not attractive for the participants because of the myth, ‘eat beans will fart’!!

Most participants in the class are men, who according to their partners are already a ‘gas bomb’, so why send them for a lesson on becoming a ‘master’ in this fine art of which they are already an expert? Jokes apart, B&L are badly misunderstood, like most men. They are not all gas and they do have some substance!!

So what are beans and lentils?

The short answer is that they both belong to the pea family (i.e. legumes, or plants whose seeds are in a pod). The shape of the pea seed determines if they are called beans (kidney shaped) or lentils (lens shaped). Chefs never refer to peas as ‘peas’ unless they are fresh.

Furthermore, beans have the two pods wrapped around a membrane whilst lentils don’t have this membrane, hence the two pods are separate. And that’s why they’re called split peas!!

And what are some of the examples of these beans and lentils?

Well, some popular examples of beans include: red kidney or rajmah, black-eye beans or lobia, chick peas or kabuli chana, green beans or moong (mung) beans, black beans or urad sabot.

And some examples of lentils include: yellow or mung lentils, white lentils or urad, chick pea lentils or chana dal, red lentils or masoor.

Okay, so we’ve listed some of them so to get the ball rolling, let’s talk about beans. Should we soak them or not?

Yes! We all know that we should ‘soak the beans’.

But for how long?

We soak our beans in water (at room temperature) in a pot large enough to hold about three times the amount of water to the amount of beans at the bottom of the pot.

This allows the beans to soak in enough moisture so that they can swell or balloon without breaking the skin. If you’ve ever soaked your beans in a pot or bowl that’s not big enough you’ll have noticed that the beans swell and the skin splits as the beans have nowhere else to go but expand!

Bad beans! Split and shrivelled skins mean you stinted on water when soaking them.

The pot is then kept near a warm place, preferably overnight, without disturbing it.

(I generally do the soaking after the sun has gone down and keep it soaking till the sun comes up!!) Or, as many recipes state, “soak overnight”.

The next morning, depending how much the beans have absorbed the water, more water is added to keep the beans submerged in the water (the water is now called ‘pot liquor’) and then it’s placed on a medium heat until it comes to the boil. No stirring is allowed as this makes the beans stick to the bottom of the pot and they’ll eventually burn!

To this day I have no bl..dy idea why this happens but to me these are the little nuances that make Indian food so mysterious, challenging and alluring!

Red kidney beans (not Mexican jumping beans)

The froth that rises to the top of the cooking beans must be stirred back into the pot and not discarded as some books say. I was taught to stir the froth back into the cooking beans. The heat is then reduced so that the beans simmer for a few hours.

How long we simmer for depends on the beans. Rajmah (red kidney beans) take a few hours while black-eyed beans take just under an hour.

Once cooked, the beans must be soft so that they mash easily between the thumb and the forefinger when pressed together.

They must also have their skin intact! This is very important because if the skin tears as the beans are cooking, the beans then become hard to digest and cause bloating which leads to indigestion and that so-called crime attributed to all beans: ‘farting’. For insurance,  you can add  dried fenugreek leaves (qasoori methi) before the tempering is done when cooking our beans.

Mung beans

So, well-cooked beans are a great source of protein and a great substitute for meat. In states like Gujarat and Maharashtra, and other parts of India where meat is not very popular, beans are the energy tanks!

So there we have the rudiments of soaking and simmering and getting our beans ready for the base of our dish.

Now, let’s move onto dal which have a bad press, like beans, with the added insult that since the 1970s they were seen as the only thing that vegetarians ate!

chick pea lentils

Firstly, lentils don’t need to soak over night. But how do we cook them?

Lentils should be cooked in room temperature tap water. This allows the dal to cook from the inside out. If you add the lentils to hot water then the outside starts to cook first whilst the inside remains raw, just like when you boil your eggs you start off with cold water!!

Once the water has come to the boil the lentils are then cooked over a low heat.

Once cooked the lentils should mash easily.

Having reached this stage lentils are now ready to have the flavours of the region it’s going to be cooked in added, such as vagharne from (Gujarat), talchikottu (Tamil Nadu), oogharne (Karnataka), and so on and so forth!

And now to the million-dollar question about lentils.

white dal (urad)

How do I prevent any flatulence from happening after eating dal?

Okay. Let’s get this straight. During the tempering process it is important to add asafoetida. Asafoetida is a strong smelling sap of the large ‘fennel like’ tree that comes from Afghanistan. It is sold as a block or as a dried powder. We generally add it to the hot oil, along with the other spices, before it is added to the cooked lentils.

And can we cook lentils and beans together?


The dal makhni is a classic example of this and is soaked overnight because it has both beans and lentils in it (it uses rajmah, whole black urad and split chick peas).

Okay. So how do you cook sprouted beans?

Most Indians make a kind of usad or usal which is a simple preparation where the sprouts are tossed in a tempering that is popular to a particular region and then it is simmered without being overcooked. This delicious and simple dish is served as an afternoon snack!

Sprouted beans are extremely healthy and are very popular in India.

And can we make a dry dal?

Of course. If you do it is then called a dal-be-aab and it’s one of my favourite dishes.

The dal (lentils) are cooked and allowed to simmer till all the water has evaporated leaving behind a solid mass of cooked lentils.

Mom used to cook this and keep the tempering separate for us to add as much as we liked with chopped onions and coriander leaves and lemon juice. Slurrrrrrr…..p!! Served with a wholemeal roti, this is a winner in my house.

split yellow lentils

Can we cook lentils and meat together?

Most certainly. A very popular dish from Hyderabad is called dalcha gosht where chickpea lentils and meat – usually it’d be goat or lamb – are slow cooked together and then tempered. Served with a kulcha (a delicious flat bread) this is a “beauty”.

Okay, so how about rice and dal, can we cook them together?

You bet. The most popular version is called khichadi or pongal or khichada or bisi bhele bhath!! The English call it kedgeree. Of course they added their own unique ingredients to the dish that we all know so well: “curry powder” and Brussel sprouts and smoked haddock (there are lots of different versions of this dish and some people add hard-boiled eggs whilst others would never add Brussel sprouts and etc.)!!

So my friends, beans and lentils are more than just ‘hot air’. If they were just ‘fart inducers’ Indians would have been the cause of global warming and the land itself  would  have been a ‘gas chamber’ and there wouldn’t have been 1.2 billion people………!!

Anah Daata Sukhi Bhava!!

Please try either a black-eyed beans recipe or a red lentil recipe.

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