Lucknow is a city in northern India steeped in the royal traditions of the Mughals. Chana dal is Hindi for split yellow peas. In this recipe the richness of caramelized onions gives humble yellow split peas a regal air in true Mughal tradition. A touch of cumin and green chili is just the right amount of spice in this velvety version of split pea soup. A surprisingly easy dish that can also be made vegan. Pairs perfectly with rice and chapattis or simply served as a hearty soup on a chilly Fall or Winter's day.
This recipe is adapted from one of my most recent cookbook acquisitions, Betty Indian Home Cooking by Raghavan Iyer. I think it's hilarious that good old American Betty Crocker did an Indian cookbook. I know Betty Crocker did some rather Americanized Mexican and Chinese cookbooks, but I had no idea there was an Indian one. Those of you who collect Indian cookbooks will probably recognize the author, Raghavan Iyer. Mr Iyer is the author of the much lauded cookbooks 660 Curries and Indian Cooking Unfolded: A Master Class in Indian Cooking, with 100 Easy Recipes Using 10 Ingredients or Less. He does do a good job of presenting recipes from all over India in this beginners' tome. The photos are nice and the book is very well made with high quality paper and binding we've come to expect from Betty Crocker.
This is the best recipe in the entire book. This recipe is so easy and the best split pea soup I've ever had. Even my anti-veg mutton-a-holic brother-in-law loves this dal! I initially had my doubts about this recipe as it had only four ingredients - but this has truly become a family favorite! I did make some adjustments to the recipe though. The original recipe called for caramelizing six onions in two tablespoons of ghee or oil and one cup of yellow split peas. Frying six medium sized onions in two tablespoons of any fat is wishful thinking. Even with a non stick or Teflon pan you're going to end up with a burnt mess. (This book was written in 2001 when America was still in it's fat-phobic frenzy so I'm sure Mr Iyer was told to keep oils to a minimum.) Plus that is A LOT of onions! Mughal and Muslim recipes tend to be a bit onion heavy but that's bordering ridiculous. So I decreased the onions to a cup, upped the quantity of yellow split peas to one and a half cups, and increased the cooking oil to three tablespoons. The result was perfection! I use a mixture of ghee or butter and cooking oil because I find that ghee or butter alone can get a scorched taste when frying onions this long. You could certainly skip the ghee or butter and use three tablespoons of cooking oil to make this dish vegan. The key to this dish is getting the onions properly caramelized. If you're in a western country that doesn't have the pinkish Indian onions just use the commonly available yellow onions for the same flavor. There is a little trick I've learned to speed the caramelization of the onions if you're the impatient type like me, I'll put that at the bottom of the page under Helpful Hints if you're interested. Otherwise simply slice the onions as evenly as you can and fry them over medium heat with a watchful eye. Then mix the caramelized onion mixture and cooked peas together to simmer for a bit and enjoy!
1&1/2 C yellow split peas/chana dal
6 C water
1/4 tsp turmeric
2 tsp salt
2 TBS cooking oil
1 TBS ghee or butter (just use cooking oil to make this recipe vegan)
1 C onions, thinly sliced into half moons
1 tsp cumin seeds/jeera
2-3 green chilis, chopped finely (use less or omit for less heat)
chopped cilantro, chopped red chilis, sliced red onions (optional for garnish)
Here's what to do:
1) In a 5 quart pressure cooker or deep stock pot combine yellow split peas, 6 cups water, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon turmeric. Allow steam for 4-5 whistles if using pressure cooker. Bring to a boil and allow to simmer partially covered for 30 to 45 minutes if using stock pot. If mixture begins to stick or scorch add 1/4 C water, stir well, and reduce heat.
2) While peas are cooking heat cooking oil and ghee in a deep heavy bottomed skillet or kadhai. Fry onions for about 10 minutes or until a golden brown. Add cumin seeds and chopped green chilis to fried onions mixture, stir well and fry for 2-3 minutes. Remove skillet or kadhai from heat immediately. You want your onions caramelized not burnt, err on the side of underdone than over done. Burnt onions are bitter and will ruin the dish.
3) Stir the fried onion mixture into cooked peas. Partially cover and allow to simmer for 10 minutes to blend flavors. The fried onions will float upon the surface of the boiled peas at first. Then after about ten minutes they meld together.
4) Allow mixture to keep simmering until peas are to desired tenderness. You can leave the peas slightly firm and holding their shape or cook them down to velvety smoothness. It's all about what you like! Add a bit of water, reduce heat, and stir well until dal is to desired consistency. Salt to taste, garnish if desired, and serve hot with rice, rotis, or as a soup with buttered bread.
A little trick I learned on one of these food and science websites to speed up the caramelization of onions is to add a little baking soda while frying. You want to wait until the onions just start to turn brown at the edges, then add about 1/4 teaspoon of baking soda per cup of onions being fried. Raising the pH to a slightly alkaline level will cause the onions to caramelize faster so watch them carefully. The slightly alkaline pH will also cause the onions' cells to lyse so you'll end up with a sort of paste. A paste of caramelized onions is fine for this dish as we're going to simmer them in with the boiled peas until they disentegrate anyway. Now, if you're trying to make the onions that are fried to a delicate crisp called birista - DO NOT use baking soda.
If you're in a western country where the pinkish Indian style onions I've shown in the above picture aren't available then use the more commonly found yellow onions. Do not use red or purple onions as they are too sugary and will scorch rather than caramelize.