Family Recipes: Khatti Dal

Dec 16, 2019

Indian cooking can be quite daunting for the uninitiated. But Lajwanti Pershad Waghray says if you keep things simple, you can’t go wrong. Waghray suggests starting with a spice foundation: cumin, mustard seeds and turmeric. From there you can add ginger and garlic.

These spices are the foundation of her family recipe for khatti dal — an Indian dish of lentils cooked until soft and then simmered in a richly spiced sauce.

Lajwanti Pershad Waghray and her son, Rohan.
Credit Bruce McCain

“Every family has their own version,” says Waghray. “My grandmother is the one who, I don’t know if she created it, but she’s the one who taught us all.”

Now, Waghray is teaching her son, Rohan. “It’s been, like, a process throughout my whole life. Just learning and trying to get the steps down so I can make it later,” he says.

There are definitely some things to keep in mind when making this dish. Using the right kind of dal (the Indian word for lentil) is most important, according to Waghray. “I use yellow ones, which are called tuvar dal,” she notes.

“There is the chana dal which is also yellow … but the chana and the tuvar … they kind of look very similar, but they’re not,” Waghray adds.

Then you have to consider which vegetable to use.

Drumsticks are an Indian vegetable that is mild in flavor, but has a tough exterior even when cooked.
Credit Bruce McCain

“You add one vegetable that, kind of, dictates the direction you take with it,” says Waghray. “Sometimes I use white radish and sometimes I use what is called drumsticks.”

Drumsticks are an Indian vegetable similar in appearance to a supersized green bean. They are mild in flavor. But there is a trick to eating them. The exterior is tough even when cooked. To extract the soft and savory interior flesh, gently bite down on the cooked drumstick while pulling the long pod between your teeth. This is similar to eating the tougher outer leaves of a cooked artichoke.

Khatti dal can be served over rice or with a side of flat bread, such as the Indian roti. “I cannot forget eating that. The smell, it is ingrained in my mind,” says Waghray.

Lajwanti Pershad Waghray serves the finished khatti dal on top of cooked rice. She also recommends serving the dal with Indian roti bread.
Credit Bruce McCain

Khatti Dal

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup tuvar dal (yellow lentils)
  • 1/4 cup tomato puree or sauce (canned or freshly made)
  • 2 teaspoons ginger garlic paste
  • 1/4 teaspoon cumin seeds
  • 1/4 teaspoon mustard seeds
  • 1/4 teaspoon fenugreek seeds
  • 5-8 curry leaves
  • 2 tablespoons fresh, finely chopped cilantro (1T for cooking, 1T for garnish)
  • 1/4 teaspoon turmeric powder
  • 1/8 teaspoon chili powder
  • drumsticks or daikon, chopped into cubes
  • salt, to taste
  • 3 teaspoons oil
  • 1 1/2 cups of water

Directions:

Step 1: Wash and cook dal (lentils) in a pressure cooker. Once cooled, mash and add a cup of water and set aside. (This can also be done in slow cooker or stove top, but it takes a long time.)

Step 2: Heat oil in a pan and add the cumin, mustard and fenugreek seeds. Once they splutter in the hot oil, add the frozen drumsticks or chopped daikon, curry leaves and cilantro. Stir well.

Cumin, mustard and fenugreek seeds splutter in oil. Then frozen drumsticks, curry leaves and cilantro are added, followed by the tomato puree.
Credit Bruce McCain

Step 3: Add the ginger garlic paste, chili powder and turmeric powder. Then add 1/2 cup of water so the spices do not caramelize and burn. Let the vegetables cook till they give out a rich aroma and turn soft. Once the vegetables are the right consistency, add the tomato puree and cook further.

The Waghrays combine the cooked tuvar dal (yellow lentils) with the spiced tomato base and drumsticks. 1 cup of water is then added to create the consistency of a light soup.
Credit Bruce McCain

Step 4: Once the tomatoes change color, add the cooked tuvar dal (yellow lentils) and 1 cup of water and stir well. The consistency of the dal should be that of a light soup. Salt to taste and finish the dish with chopped cilantro for garnish.

Editor's note: Family Recipes is produced by Lucien Jung, a long time contributor to Lake Effect. In Family Recipes, Lucien visits the kitchens of Milwaukee-area residents as they prepare special family dishes they remember from childhood.