Welcome to Recipe Off-Roading, where the recipe isn’t in charge—you are. In this series of articles, we’re celebrating how cooks take liberties in the kitchen, whether that’s substituting an ingredient, adapting a technique, or doubling the salt (because you’re wild like that). So buckle up and let’s go for a ride.
In her just-released cookbook, Indian-ish, Priya Krishna writes: “It’s almost a rite of passage for Indian kids to hate eating dal when they are younger, and then to eventually realize as adults that it is truly the superior soup.”
“Did that happen to you?” I asked her over the phone last week.
“Oh yeah, 100 percent,” she said. “But now it’s all I eat.”
To adult Priya, dal—a spiced soup made with dried split peas or lentils—is the perfect weeknight meal. It’s nourishing, quick to come together, and ready to be off-roaded in a million and one ways.
When she was growing up, Priya’s mother Ritu Krishna made dal every day. The dish always had a place at their family’s dinner table, usually to go with rice or roti, sabzi (sautéed vegetables), and kachumber (salad), though it was rarely the same two days in a row.
“She riffed on dal a lot,” Priya remembers.
Some of Ritu’s go-tos? Khichdi, “this wonderful lentil and rice porridge,” was a big one. Or she would add spinach. Or tomatoes. Or caramelized onions.
“She came up with every little trick to make the dal look and taste different,” Priya said, “and still my sister and I complained.”
It wasn’t until years later that Priya’s opinion changed. “I moved to New York City, wasn’t making a lot of money, and realized: Dal is really cheap to make.”
So she emailed her mom—whose from-scratch recipes she eventually cataloged into Indian-ish—and set out to master the dish she avoided for years. “As I got better at it, I started figuring out ways to make it taste really good,” she said.
A few game changers: a squeeze of fresh lime juice, a creamy dollop of yogurt, and chhonk, which Priya refers to in Indian-ish as “the greatest Indian cooking technique ever.” Essentially, you heat up some ghee, add spices (such as cumin seeds, dried red chiles, and asafetida), and pour this toasty, buttery mixture over the finished dal.
Many of Priya’s variations echo Ritu’s, like tomatoes, spinach, or caramelized onions. Another current favorite is adding cubed zucchini, which, she said, “gets super soft and creamy. It’s really mind-boggling what happens when you put zucchini into dal.”
Depending on which type of dal you start with—say, masoor dal (pink lentils) or urad dal (white lentils)—the cook time will vary. To Priya, this as the perfect opportunity to mix and match vegetables, and find your own mind-boggling favorite.
Here is a handy guide from Indian-ish to get you started. Bonus points for chhonk.
How would you make dal your own? Share ideas for ingredient combos in the comments!
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Emma is the food editor at Food52. Before this, she worked a lot of odd jobs, all at the same time. Think: stir-frying noodles on the fly, baking dozens of pastries at 3 a.m., and writing about the history of pie in North Carolina. Now she lives in New Jersey with her husband and their cat, Butter. Stay tuned every Tuesday for Emma's award-winning column, Big Little Recipes (also the cookbook in October 2021!). And see what she's up to on Instagram at @emmalaperruque.