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Jolie Cooks With Madhu Column: Toor Dal and Masala Dabba

Posted on July 6, 2021 at 1:00 PM by Madhu Gadia

July 6, 2021

Jolie Cooks With Madhu Column: 
Toor Dal and Masala Dabba



Because dal is at the heart of Indian cuisine, I wanted to nail this recipe.   The word dal, Madhu explains, is the generic Indian word for all dried beans, peas, lentils, and legumes. She calls toor dal “one of the most popular everyday dals enjoyed in Indian homes.” It is made with dried split, husked pigeon peas.   As I was growing up, my mother’s tasty ham and split pea soup was her only dish made with a dried legumes.  I was ready to expand my own cooking repertoire with Madhu’s recipe for “the good old standby,” toor dal.

It’s Super Simple

Her recipe has three simple steps: (1) Cook the toor dal, turmeric, and ginger in water. (2) Meanwhile, prepare a mix of a few spices and tomato sauce. (3) When the dal is cooked, add this mixture to the cooked dal. That’s it.

Here’s my Experience  

I cooked the toor dal in water after soaking it for about 6 hours. The dal was taking longer to cook than I expected, so I raised the heat and let it bubble away, adding water as needed.  It took 40 minutes to get to a soft consistency.  While it was cooking, I heated the spices in 2 teaspoons of canola oil in a small non-stick pan. (Have I mentioned that all Madhu’s recipes are low-fat?) I noticed I’m getting more confident in quickly heating up the spices in oil, a new technique for me.  I stirred them into the dal and dinner was ready. 

What will I do differently next time?  I’ll keep the heat on a higher level than I used this time and I’ll make a double batch.  

Ted and I enjoyed this comforting Indian dish. We were completely satisfied with our simple menu of delicious dal, brown rice, raw veggies, and dip. We gave it five stars.

What’s more, cooking toor dal has nudged me into a new category of ingredients, dried lentils, peas, and beans. 

Proud Owner of Masala Dabba: Portable Spice Box 

Years ago I bought a masala dabba from an Indian grocery store, hoping it was the kitchen gear that would turn me into an Indian cook.  A masala dabba is a round stainless steel tin about 8 inches wide with seven little round holders inside for spices plus an inner cover to keep them fresh. I filled mine with cumin and other spices but never began cooking any Indian recipes.

Indian Mise en Place

I confess to being an unorganized and messy cook.  I never set up my mise en place in the kitchen even though I read an entire book about it. Because I grab ingredients as I need them, I ran into trouble when I made Madhu’s toor dal recipe. To saute the spices quickly in oil, I fumbled with opening the little jars, measuring, adding and heating spices for a minute or two, then adding more to make the second mix of spices.

There had to be a better way.


Feeling Like a Pro

The next day I remembered my own Indian spice box. I retrieved it from the back of a cupboard, emptied out the stale spices, and watched Madhu’s video Introduction to Indian Spices on her website. My rule is to do whatever Madhu suggests.   I refilled the little bowls with the spices she recommended: coriander, cumin, turmeric, mustard seeds, cayenne pepper, salt, and the redolent garam masala made from her recipe in The Indian Vegan Kitchen. Now I’m set.  I’m keeping my masala dabba on the counter to remind me that this shiny box holds the magic of Indian cooking. Will using it also help me get more organized and into a smoother rhythm as I cook more recipes?  

Stay tuned.

Madhu’s Comments: 

Jolie, congrats on mastering the art of cooking dal and seasoning them. You can now cook a variety of dals using a similar method. 

Next time, maybe you can cook the dal in an Instant Pot. Since dals/beans are a staple in the Indian diet, most Indians own a pressure cooker. I use a pressure cooker several times a week. In an Instant Pot or pressure cooker, the toor dal will cook in 3-4 minute pressure. Give it a try. 

Here is another toor dal recipe using an Instant Pot - Dal Fry, see video


Seasoning dals in this simple way is known as chaunk. Roasting spices and adding them to the dish enhances the flavor of the spices and thus the dish. I’m so happy that you identified the Indian seasoning process/chaunk; it is as fundamental as mise en place. Plus, having your masala dabba (Indian mise en place) next to you will help you cook with ease. 

Recipe: Toor Dal (Pigeon Peas) - The Indian Vegan Kitchen, page 119.


Disclaimer: "Jolie Cooks with Madhu" is an independent column. The views expressed are Jolie Zimmers's personal cooking experiences and do not represent any product or company. They are not paid or reimbursed by any third party for their viewpoints.

I have pressure cooked toor dal in my 6 qt Instant Pot and it cooked beautifully. I blew the lid off my old style "rocker" pressure cooket, but the IP has a lot of safety features that give me more confide ce. I just make sure that I leave plenty of head room in the pot.
JoAnne Wagner | 8/14/21 at 7:54 AM
In the past my mise en place meant "a mess." I am enjoying the challenge of changing my ways--and preparing my mise en place actually SAVES time. Happy cooking, Marbeth!
Jolie | 7/21/21 at 11:36 AM
I love vocabulary! I may have come across mise en place before but never bothered to search its meaning. This time I did and even listened to the pronunciation several times. I love your box of beautiful spices. An afternoon’s project for me someday.
Marbeth Foley | 7/7/21 at 12:51 PM
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