Food & Drink

On the Table: Cook lentils to make versatile dal

If India had a national vegetable, it would have to be the lentil. And its national dish could be dal.

Of course, it has neither a national vegetable nor a national dish. The country is so massive and diverse that it would be nearly impossible to single out a food that could adequately capture the range and complexity of Indian cuisine.

Still, dal – a thick, soup-like food made from cooked lentils – would be near the top of the list, a winner for flavor, versatility, convenience and nutrition.

Lentils, the primary ingredient in dal, are small, disk-shaped seeds grown on a bushy plant. They are among the oldest legumes in the world. They’ve been on the menu in India, the Middle East, Eastern Africa and the Mediterranean for thousands of years, used in recipes that haven’t changed much, if any, during that time.

Lentils – and dal – are packed with nutrition, rich in protein, potassium, iron, folate, niacin and dietary fiber. And unless buttery ghee is added, dal is low in saturated fat and devoid of cholesterol.

Dal also tastes great – a savory, nutty flavor enhanced by spices – and it’s easy to digest, making it a good choice for anybody, anytime.

What else is so special about dal?

• It’s versatile. In India, dal is served as an entrée with rice, in a bowl like soup, and on the plate with Indian breads used like spoons for scooping.

• It’s easy to make. Dried lentils are inspected and small stones or other debris are removed. Then the lentils are rinsed and added to a pot with about 1 1/2 cup of fluid – water or broth – to every cup of dried lentils. Cook until soft, about 20 minutes for many varieties, and up to 45 minutes for others.

• It’s varied. There are many different kinds of lentils – red, orange, yellow, brown, green – and as many varieties of dal. So the flavor – and even the function – of dal in a meal can vary.

• It can be an entrée. But its texture and flavor also give it a gravy-like quality, so it can be used as a first course soup or appetizer dip, too.

Get familiar with dal. It may become a habit in your home, too.

Suzanne Havala Hobbs is a registered dietitian and clinical associate professor of health policy and management at UNC-Chapel Hill. Reach her at; follow her on Twitter, @suzannehobbs.