Dal fry was one of my favourite meals while travelling in India. Cheap and packed with protein-rich lentils, dal fry is a comforting food available in almost any veg restaurant you can find. At home, dal fry is quick to make: cook the lentils, fry your spices, add lentils to spices and simmer. The taste and aroma of my dal fry brought back so many memories of my time in India.
I decided to stay in the South of India for the entirety of my 3 month trip. I thought of going further North, but was a bit nervous about encountering some of the massive cities (like Mumbai) there. The South of India has a lot to offer. Beautiful beaches, hillside tea plantations, and historic temples are the main attractions. But the cuisine is a true star! It’s a lot lighter and more vegetarian focussed than the heavier meat curries we’re exposed to in North America.
Everyday hotel restaurants usually fall into three categories: veg, non-veg, or veg and non-veg. I ate mostly vegetarian food while in India, partly because I was trying to follow the yogic diet (no harm, means no meat); partly because I wasn’t too sure about the meat handling standards. Despite my precautions, I did have a few bouts of gastrointestinal stress during the last part of my trip (all part of the experience, right?).
With my mostly vegetarian diet I became alright at deciphering Indian restaurant menus. Indians actually refer to all types of split pulses as dal. So any dish involving split lentils or beans is called dal. Some menus have at least 5 types of dal available, but I usually stuck to my favourite: dal fry. Other notable varieties include chana (chickpea) dal, and dal tadka (spicy).
Shiva’s Cooking Class in Benaulim, Goa
I learnt the dal fry recipe from Shiva, a kind man who invited me to a cooking class at his home. I’m so happy Shiva came to “pitch” his business to me while I was hiding from the midday sun at a beachfront restaurant. I just finished the Trimurti yoga teacher training and was on my own in Benaulim, Goa. Unfortunately I booked an awful, albeit cheap, place to stay. Think giant cockroaches, stinky sheets, bamboo walls, dirty floors, and no air circulation. My last experience of Goa would have been a disaster if it weren’t for Shiva.
After spending a sleepless night in my bamboo hut, I met-up with Shiva to walk to his home. We even picked fresh curry leaves from his neighbour’s tree on the way. Shiva is a talkative guy and told me stories about people he’s met from all over the world. We quickly got to work when we arrived in his tiny kitchen. I chopped a lot of onions and tomatoes that afternoon (the base of most Indian dishes).
Even in the heat, it was a lot of fun to be back in the kitchen and learning to cook my favourite South Indian foods. When Shiva was busy attending to other tourists interested in his bike rentals (he’s a resourceful guy), I cooked with his wife, Usha. She more or less took over in the kitchen, but all the dishes were completed much faster this way. It was a super fun afternoon, learning a lot about India from Shiva and his family. I even received an email from Shiva a few weeks back thanking me for coming to his cooking class. If you’re planning a trip to Goa, definitely spend a day or two in Benaulim to take Shiva’s cooking class. I can give his email to anyone who’s interested!
Making Dal Fry & Chapati at Home
This method of making dal is so easy! I prefer the fresher flavour gained from quickly sautéing the spices, rather than versions where all the ingredients are stewed together. You simply need to wash and boil the lentils. I used red split lentils because they’re so abundant and cheap in Canada, but any split lentil will work. Then chop and prepare all the spices. Fry up the spice mixture, add the lentils in, let simmer, and enjoy!
A hearty bowl of dal fry pairs well with rice or chapati. Chapatis are a healthy Indian flatbread, similar to a tortilla. They’re made with a special type of whole wheat flour, salt, and water. The flour they use is called Atta flour. I haven’t found it yet, but regular whole wheat flour worked alright.
I learnt a bit about making chapati while staying at the Surfing Ashram. One evening I helped out in the kitchen and ended up cooking a lot of chapatis! We cooked them on either side in a dry frying pan. Then, using tongs, held each side over an open gas flame until they became puffy and full of air. If you don’t have a gas stove, just keep them in the frying pan a bit longer – they might bubble up a bit, but not nearly as much. Remember to make the chapati dough before starting to cook the dal. Then it can rest while you make the dal fry.
You can serve the chapatis and dal fry with a big bowl of stir-fried veggies to make a more substantial meal. Garnish the dal with a bit of fresh cilantro or parsley and you’re good to go. I hope you enjoy these Indian flavours! Stay tuned for a masala curry recipe I have in the works.
Dal Fry + Chapati
- 2 cups split red lentils
- 5 cups water
- 3/4 tsp salt
- 1 tsp turmeric powder
- 3 tbsp cooking oil
- 1 tbsp ghee or butter (optional)
- 1/2 large onion diced
- 1 inch piece of ginger minced
- 2 cloves garlic minced
- 2 hot chillies (partially remove seeds to reduce spice) diced
- 1 tsp cumin seeds
- 1/4 tsp mustard seeds
- 2 cups whole wheat flour or Atta flour
- 3/4 tsp salt
- 1 cup warm water
- Rinse the lentils with cold water a couple times and pick over for debris. Combine lentils and water together in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil. Simmer until lentils are cooked, 5-7 minutes. Drain water from lentils into a bowl, reserving for later use. Roughly mash lentils with salt and turmeric.
- Chop onions, garlic, ginger, and chillies (remove some of the seeds to decrease spiciness). Heat a large cast iron frying pan over medium heat. Add the oil and onion, frying until starting to turn golden. Add the cumin and mustard seeds, frying until fragrant. Add garlic, ginger, and chillies, frying another 2 minutes.
- Add the cooked lentils to the frying pan. Let them heat through. Slowly add the lentil cooking water into dal until desired consistency is reached. Turn the heat to low and let simmer for 10-15 minutes while cooking the chapatis.
- In a large bowl mix flour and salt together. Make a well in centre and slowly add the the warm water, while stirring dough with other hand. Stop adding water once you can work the dough into a ball. It should be just a bit sticky.
- Knead dough for 10 minutes in the mixing bowl. Only add a bit of flour if the dough is really sticky, but avoid adding too much or the dough will be tough. Lightly coat the ball of dough with cooking oil. Let dough rest in the bowl for 30 minutes to 2 hours. Cover bowl with a damp towel or plastic wrap over top.
Place dough on a large cutting board and roll into a long rope. Cut rope into 12 pieces. Cover pieces with a damp towel. On a clean countertop, form one piece into a ball. Use a rolling pin to roll it as thin as possible. Add a bit of flour to the bottom to prevent sticking (if necessary).
- Heat a dry frying pan over medium heat. On a clean countertop, form a piece of dough into a ball and then use rolling pin to roll it out as thin as possible. If sticking to countertop, sprinkle a bit of flour over the surface.
- Cook the chapati in frying pan for 1-2 minutes per side. They should have light brown speckling.
- If you have a gas stove: Use tongs to hold the chapati, put aside the frying pan and hold chapati over the flame for a few seconds per side. It should bubble up and get a bit of charring.
- Repeat with the other pieces of dough. Store cooked chapati on a plate and cover with a towel.