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Dal: The Timeless Unifier of the Indian Kitchen

Dal interestingly is both an ingredient as well as a dish. It can be a poor man’s staple as well as a luxurious indulgence. Dal
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Dal is that one dish with which every Indian shares an umbilical connection and which in one word connotes comfort food for one and all. One of the most versatile and adaptable ingredients in the Indian kitchen, each region has its favourite as each of these dals are prepared in different ways in the different regions. The diverse tempering used gives the distinctly unique flavour to this mellow but much-loved dish which is indispensable in every Indian meal across socio-economic identities. Whether it is the dal fry of northern India or the sweet chholar dal of Bengal or the tangy sambar of south India, dal weaves multiplicities of culture and histories together. The phrase sharing daal roti has become a metaphor of bonding as well as subsistence.
Dal interestingly is both an ingredient as well as a dish. It can be a poor man’s staple as well as a luxurious indulgence. Dal is not a typical restaurant dish but essentially belongs to the home kitchen. Every home has its own taste of the dal. The unassuming dal contains within it the cultural identity of every region and of each family. There is no single defining recipe; every household has a different recipe passed down through generations. Ruling the kitchen in all corners of the country, India is in fact the world’s biggest producer and consumer of lentils.

Dal Bhat or rice and lentils is the most basic Indian staple

Dal in Sanskrit means to split. Lentils are of various kinds, differing in color, texture and taste. Archaeological evidence points to dal being the earliest staple dish in recorded history of India. History yields interesting facts about dal (dal recipe and history). Starch granules of green and black gram have been recovered from the Harappan site of Farmana in the Ghaggar valley. K T Achaya, noted food historian mentions several dals in Aryan literature like masha (urad), mudga (moong) and masura (masoor). These were found dating back to 1500 BC at Navdtoli and Daulatpur. The Markandeya Purana and Vishnu Purana mentioned chickpea (chana). Reference to masha appears in the Rigveda as well. The dish kulmasha, which appears to have been masha dressed with gur (jaggery) and a few drops of oil, has the connotation of a poor man’s food in the Vedic period. Rama apparently favoured a soaked raw dal preparation called kosumalli, consisting of diced cucumber, a sprinkle of coconut – all of it tossed in lemon juice. Pulses had been in use for the preparation of some sweets dating back to the late Buddhist period, such as mandaka (now called mande) – a large paratha stuffed with sweetened pulse paste and baked on an inverted pot.

Idli sambar is a popular south Indian staple

Masoor dal traced to the 7th century in Turkey and Iran was found in India around 1800 BC. It finds mention in Brihad Samhita and Taititriya Brahmana around 800 BC. Thuvar or arhar known as adhaki in early Buddhist literature was grown wildly in the Western Ghats. Some historians point to the southern origin of arhar from the Dravidian termthuvarai which later travelled northwards. Though called Bengal gram, the chana dal can be traced to Kalibangan as early as 2500 BC. Known as chanaka in sanskrit one finds its mention in Buddhist literature dating back to 400 BC. It was the British who named it Bengal gram because they first saw it in Bengal. The large Kabuli chana variety came much later in the 18th century in India from the Mediterranean region. Rajma came much later in northern India from South America and was not the same as rajmasha as mentioned by Charaka. The French traders grew rajma in Mahe and Pondicherry.
The defining dish of Indian cuisine through the centuries has been the dal. King Someshwar of Kalyana, in his Manasollasa (1130) mentions recipes made from pulses. Veshtika was a circlet of spiced bean paste rolled in wheat flour and then baked on an earthen plate. Vatika or the wari of the present also mentions how the urad dal was ground, fermented, dried and then deep fried. Manasalossa also mentions vidalapaka- a slow cooked dish of spiced mixed pulses like masura, rajmasha and adhaki. Vidalapaka was made from a mix of five pulse flours (chana, rajma, masoor, moong and parched tuvar), seasoned with rock salt, turmeric and asafoetida and cooked on slow heat. Parika resembles the bonda of today, being described as cakes of besan, spiced with salt, pepper, asafoetida and sugar and fried in oil. Pulses were blended with vegetables or meat to prepare flavourful curries. Moong dal seasoned with pieces of lotus-stem and chironji seeds, asafoetida and green ginger, fried in oil and boiled to a curry along with mutton was finished with black pepper and dry ginger. Dhosaka (dosa) and idarika (idli) were made only with pulses. A 16th century work lists foods of the Gangetic plains like bara (vada), pakauri (pakoda) made out of lentils.

Dal can be a poor man's dish or a luxurious indulgence

Ancient Indian texts describe recipes of dals that were served to guests at celebratory meals. It is believed that special dal served at Chandragupta Maurya’s wedding back in 303 BC was the precursor of ghugni – a lentil preparation that is still very popular in eastern India. In medieval India, the dum pukht technique gave a new stature to dal, especially chana dal. No other dal except chana dal was served to the emperors. To the Mughals dal was an exotic ingredient but was incorporated to make it an indispensable item in their culinary palette. Panchmel dal was popular with the Mughal royalty and was made first in the royal house of Mewar. Shah Jahan’s court had its own shahi panchmel dal recipe. It also held a place of pride on the dining table of Aurangzeb. Food historians point out that the panchmel dal was born out of the necessity to create a different dal for the royal meal every day – changing the combinations of dal and the tempering ensured that the dal tasted different every time. 

However, the first mention of this dal is made in the Mahabharata — while hiding as a cook in King Virat’s kitchen, Bhim created the first panchratna dal by slow-cooking the mix of five dals in an earthen pot and garnishing it with a generous dollop of ghee. Murad was very fond of Rajasthani toor dal and ordered his cooks to create something light but delightful with his favourite dal. A cook accidentally discovered that cooking moong dal on slow flame can result in a dish that is slightly sweet, velvety and just as flavourful as toor dal. He served it in a bowl made of dried betel nut leaf with a garnish of amchur, onions and green chillies. The prince is said to have liked it so much that he snacked on it three times a day. The Moradabadi dal was thus born. Queen Victoria loved masoor dal with rice as an accompaniment when her Urdu tutor Munshi Abdul Karim initiated her into it. Thus, the name Malika Masoor, now called Malka Masoor came into common language.

Masoor dal or red lentils was found in India in 1800 BC

In India, dals are eaten in myriad ways. A simple dish of khichdi which was the staple of the peasants since the 16th century is the epitome of comfort food. The Mughals fell in love with khichdi as Humayun served khichdi for the Shah of Iran as well. While Hyderabad has its Khatti dal flavoured with tamarind and red chillies, Kerala has dals cooked with vegetables, coconut milk tempered with curry leaves. Maharashtra has dals like Moong Usal and Katachi Amti with ingredients as peanuts, jaggery, asafoetida, coconut and lime while Gujrat savours the Tidali- a mix of three dals, spinach and green gourd. Bengal takes pride in its cholar dal cooked with coconut, raisins and cashews tempered in ghee with cumin seeds, northern India sits with its array of Pindi Chole, Maa ki Dal, Rajmah and Dal Tarka. Rajasthan has the famed Dal Baati Churma while Kashmir cooks Rajma and Arhar dal flavoured with shalgam. Parsis can’t do without their Dhansak where dal and meat are cooked together flavoured with a host of spices. Not to miss are the Haleem and Khichra where dal is fused with meat and has religious connotations.

Dal is ubiquitous as papads, vadas, vadis, soups and even halwas are made out of it. In order to store extra lentils during harvest seasons, the concept of creating papad from dal developed.
Four interesting recipes of dal across the regions of our country will attest to the fact that dal has been indeed a timeless unifier of our country, even though the epithet of National Dish of India is shrouded in heated debates.

Chana and lauki dal (Jammu and Kashmir)


  • Chana Dal (Bengal
  • Gram)- 250gm
  • Turmeric powder- ½ tsp
  • Ginger grated-1 tsp
  • Cumin seeds- ½ tsp
  • Dry Ginger powder- ½ tsp
  • Bottle gourd cut into large pieces- ½ kg
  • Salt to taste

For tempering:

  • Ghee- 50 ml
  • Aniseed (Saunf)- 1 tsp
  • Cloves-4 
  • Asafoetida (Hing)- a pinch


  • Soak the lentils for one hour.
  • In a heavy bottomed pan add the drained lentils, salt, turmeric, grated ginger, ginger powder and cumin seeds.
  • Add 2 glasses of water. Cover and cook till the lentils are half done.
  • Add the bottle gourd and cover. Cook till tender. The lentils should absorb most of the water.

For tempering:

  • Heat ghee. Add aniseeds and cloves.
  • Add asafoetida and turn off heat once sizzling.
  • Add the cooked lentils to this. Adjust seasonings. Mix well. 
  • Garnish with mint leaves. Cover for 10 min before serving.
Lauki chana dal

Masoor ki khatti dal (Hyderabad)


  • Masoor dal (dhuli)-200gms
  • Turmeric powder-1/4th Tsp
  • Red chilli powder-1 tsp
  • Cauliflower, cut into florets- 100gm
  • Carrots, diced- 2
  • Brinjals, diced- 3 small
  • Radish, sliced-1
  • French beans, cut- 1oomg
  • Salt to taste

For tempering:

  • Oil- 1 tbsp
  • Mustard seeds-1/2 tsp
  • Garlic, crushed- 10 cloves
  • Curry leaves- a few
  • Onions, sliced- 2
  • Tomatoes, chopped- 2
  • Lime-2


  • Soak the lentils for 30 minutes.
  • Cook the lentils along with salt, turmeric, red chilli powder till 60% done. 
  • Add all the vegetables cut evenly. Cook till just tender. Do not overcook.
  • Heat the oil. Add mustard seeds. When they start to splutter add the crushed garlic. Fry till golden. Add the curry leaves, followed by the sliced onions. When the onions are golden brown add the tomatoes. Cook till soft.
  • Add the boiled lentils. Mix well. Take off heat.
  • Pour the lime juice. Mix well and cover for 10 min.
  • Serve with steamed rice.
Hyderabadi khatti dal

Arhar dal with methi (Maharashtra)


  • Arhar Dal- 2oo gms
  • Fenugreek/Methi leaves-1 cup
  • Turmeric powder-1/2 tsp
  • Red chilli powder-1 tsp
  • Asafetida/Hing- A pinch
  • Jaggery-1 tsp
  • Kokum/Tamarind Juice – 4 or1/3rd cup
  • Cloves-2
  • Cinnamon stick-1/2 inch
  • Coconut grated-1/4th 
  • Cumin seeds-1/2 tsp
  • Coriander seeds- 1 tsp

For tempering:

  • Oil-3 tbsp
  • Mustard seeds-1 tsp
  • Fenugreek seeds-1/2 tsp
  • Curry Leaves- a few


  • Dry roast and ground clove, cinnamon, grated coconut, cumin and coriander seeds.
  • Soak the dal for 20 minutes.
  • Add all the ingredients to the dal except those of tempering and bring to boil. The lentils and the fenugreek should be well blended
  • Heat oil. Add mustard seeds. Once they splutter add the fenugreek seeds. Add the curry leaves till the aroma comes out.
  • Add the lentil mix to the tempering. The dal has medium consistency.
  • Serve hot with rotis.
Methi arhar dal

Assamese mati maa (Assam)


  • Whole Urad Dal-200gms
  • Tomatoes, chopped-2
  • Onion, chopped-1
  • Turmeric powder=1/2 tsp
  • Red chilli powder-1/2 tsp
  • Salt to taste

For tempering:

  • Oil- 1 tbsp
  • Bay leaf-1
  • Cumin seeds- 1 tsp
  • Dry red chillies-2
  • Ginger, chopped- 1 tbsp
  • Garlic, chopped- 1 tbsp
  • Green chillies, chopped- 2


  • Soak the lentils overnight.
  • In a pressure cooker add the lentils, tomatoes, onion, turmeric and red chiili powder. Add salt. Cook for 1-2 whistles and then simmer in low heat for 10 minutes.
  • In a pan, heat oil. Add bay leaf, cumin seeds and red chillies. When browned add the chopped ginger and garlic. Fry for a few minutes. Add the chopped green chillies.
  • Add the boiled lentils and mix. Cook for 2-3 minutes.
  • Serve hot.


  1. Achaya,K.T. The story of our food. Hyderabad;Universities PressLimited;2003.
  2. Prakash.O. Food and drinks in ancient India. Delhi; Munshi Manohar Lal;1961.

Images courtesy: Wikimedia Commons, Youtube, Aaj Tak

Ranjini Guha is an Associate Prof in History, food writer and author with research interests in food history and gender history. Her book Foodscapes, Lockdown and Dinner Diaries is an interesting chronicle of days of complete Lockdown with recipes, food history and nostalgia. She is also an avid traveller and travels solo.

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