New Traditions: the Comfort of Daal

Yellow Lentils with Turmeric and Ginger

By Dara O’Brien
Creative Director, Lake Isle Press

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For many of us, comfort foods have meaningful childhood associations — perhaps it was grandma’s special Sunday dinner, or dad made it for you when you were sick.

I don’t really have many comfort foods I can trace to my youth. Because I was a finicky eater as a kid, there wasn’t much I was willing to consume — and what I did eat was pretty tasteless. I got past those limitations, which means that nowadays I don’t eat much of l what I ate growing up. My food, comfort or otherwise, comes with little or no personal history.

I have no story from my youth to explain why split pea soup makes me feel safe, or why braised cabbage gives me a boost. I was introduced to Drunken Noodles less than ten years ago, but put a good bowl of it in front of me and all’s right with the world.

Comfort food for me is more about texture, less about tradition. It should be soft and smooth. It should be flavorful. It should, in fact, be daal.

I began making daal about two years ago after a friend who was staying with me left behind some red lentils and a spice mix. I gave it a try, and it’s fast become a go-to comfort meal. I ditched the mix and began playing around with creating a spice blend of my own, working with different combinations of ground cumin, coriander, turmeric, ginger, and hot pepper, and adding fresh ginger for extra zing along with a little cream. It kept getting better and better.

But there are so many different kinds of legumes out there, and different kinds of lentils — yellow, red, black, green, brown, French, petite. I wanted to check out some variations, so I turned to “Flavors First” by the Indian Master Chef Vikas Khanna (published by Lake Isle Press). His recipe for Yellow Lentils with Turmeric and Ginger sounded mighty good, so I decided to try it.

I had a little trouble locating yellow lentils, but I tracked them down. Then I overcooked them. Yellow lentils can turn to mush before your very eyes. I saved the mushy batch then tried again. It came out perfectly the second time. Each batch was tasty, but the second one had a more winning texture. And it looked prettier.

This recipe produces a daal with a more delicate taste than the version I’ve been making, and delivers a creamy texture without using any dairy. The flavors meld beautifully and it has the same comforting don’t-worry-everything-will-be-all-right mouth feel I crave.

It hits all the right notes for comfort food: texture, taste, aroma… and you can serve it with rice or bread. Pairing any dish with a carb gives you a double dose of comfort. Yes, please.

Yellow Lentils with Turmeric and Ginger

Click here for printable recipe.

Serves 4

1 cup dried yellow lentils, picked over, washed, and drained
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
2 tablespoons ghee or vegetable oil
1 tablespoon cumin seeds, plus 1 teaspoon dry-roasted and coarsely ground
1 medium white onion, finely chopped
1 tablespoon finely chopped garlic
One 1-inch-long piece fresh ginger, peeled and finely chopped
1 fresh green chile pepper (such as serrano), seeded and minced
3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
Basmati rice or bread, for serving

1.Combine the lentils, turmeric, and a pinch of salt in a medium saucepan, cover with water by 2 inches, and bring to a boil over high heat. Skim froth from the surface continuously while boiling for the first 5 minutes. Reduce the heat to low and simmer, uncovered, until the lentils are tender and cooked, about 30 minutes. Leave over low heat to keep the lentils warm until ready to use.

2.In a medium skillet, heat the ghee or oil over medium-high heat and add the cumin seeds. Cook, stirring, until slightly darker and fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add the onion, garlic, ginger, and green chile and cook, stirring, until the onion is translucent and the garlic begins to brown, about 3 minutes. Stir in the lentils and cilantro and cook until well combined, about 5 minutes. Season with salt to taste and sprinkle with dry-roasted ground cumin.

3. Serve hot with rice or bread.

Recipe from “Flavors First: An Indian Chef’s Journey” by Vikas Khanna, Lake Isle Press, 2011

Originally published at on October 8, 2020.

Written by

Dara O’Brien is the Creative Director of Lake Isle Press. When she isn’t cooking or writing about cookbooks, she writes plays and sometimes acts in them.

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