My freshman year in college I lived in a dorm. The friendships, the room, and even the communal kitchenette were all super, but my foodie side couldn’t wait for the following year in a pretty apartment with a brand new kitchen. Naturally, when the time came and I was unleashed into this little world of culinary possibilities, I went crazy, cooking massive amounts of fragrant foods from faraway places. I also found a Vegetarian Indian Cooking course in the community, taught by the owner and chef of the local Indian restaurant.
She insisted that before we begin cooking, we acquire an airtight metal spice container from India, filled with colorful spices and seeds grown and ground afar. This miniature shrine to flavor is typical of a food culture that reveres spices, as both food and medicine. I still have my treasure box today and annually replace its contents for freshness. Though I always loved eating Indian cuisine, cooking it was a revelation to my American-Ashkenazi-Latin palette. Of all the aromatic dishes we prepared, toor dal (yellow lentil soup) has become my standby comfort recipe. It’s the five flavors—sweet, salt, bitter, sour, and umami—in perfect balance. I wish I could post a scent instead of a photo, but I can share the recipe, so visit your Indian grocer and try this at home.
Recipe after the jump…
2 cups toor dal (yellow split pigeon peas)*
1 large tomato, diced
1 large handful cilantro, chopped
1 sprig fresh curry leaves*
2 green fingerhot peppers, or other chili pepper, finely diced
1 tablespoon fresh ginger, grated
1 tbsp lemon juice
1 tsp turmeric
½ tsp red chili powder (preferably from India)
1½ tbsp sugar
½ tsp asafoetida powder*
2 tbsp vegetable oil
2 tsp black mustard seeds
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tbsp salt, or to taste
Bring 8 cups of water to a boil. Rinse dal in a colander under running water to remove excess starch. Add dal to water and cook on medium-high for 30 minutes or until lentils are no longer firm.
Remove from heat and purée with immersion blender, leaving some varying texture.
Return to medium heat and stir in tomato, cilantro, curry leaves, peppers, ginger, lemon juice, turmeric, chili powder, sugar, and ¼ tsp. asafoetida.
In your smallest skillet or saucepan, heat vegetable oil over medium high. Add mustard seeds and cumin seeds. When seeds begin to make popping sound,** remove from heat and add remaining ¼ tsp asafoetida. Pour hot oil and seeds into soup. Stir in salt, taste, and enjoy.
*These ingredients can be found at any Indian grocer.
**Sometimes the popping is evident and sometimes it’s a mere sizzle. If the seeds begin to smell toasted, almost like toasted pine nuts, they’re ready. If they begin to smell burned, they’re more than ready. Also, the cumin seeds turn slightly golden when done. The whole process takes less than a minute, so keep your eyes (and nose) on the job.