Many Koreans eat kimchi, the fermented cabbage and/or root dish everyday, with-or in most meals. Dals, the split lentils, peas or beans cooked into a savory stew with spices, grace tables over all over Southeast Asia, particularly Indian, Pakistan, and Bangladesh and are often simply enjoyed with rice–a protein rich, inexpensive meal.
I am interested in these cultural/culinary traditions, in part because of their daily consumption (with plenty of variation). There are certainly things I eat regularly and I am more and more interested in simplifying and finding variety in nuance and combinations rather than completely new sets of ingredients each day. Having a CSA or shopping at famers’ markets is a good guide as the vegetables change week to week or month to month but the surrounding staples, like shelf-stable fermented foods and long-lasting dry/staple goods like lentils and beans provide constant comfort, if you will.
Both kimchi and dals have infinite variations, from family to family and region to region. I have been making both for a decade or so and have barely scratched the surface of these iconic dishes, learning slowly from folks who grew up with these foods, central to their culture and identity. Sauerkraut is my cultural equivalent (to the kimchi) and though I like it I am much more drawn to the spice and complexity of its Korean cousin. Tis the season here in the Pacific Northwest for Napa Cabbage, the most central of kimchi ingredients and I will be starting a batch today.
And I particularly love red lentils; the cook quickly, my son loves them, and they’re just plain delicious and easily imbued with all sorts of spices and herbs.
Simple Red Lentil Dal
This takes 20 minutes (at the most) to make and is richly flavored. It’s delicious just with rice or with Sautéed Chard with Ginger, Jalapeño and Sausages or with stewed meats or other vegetables or grains. It is superb the next day and freezes well so by all means double the recipe. You can also stir leafy greens such as spinach, turnip, beet or mustard greens into the lentils a few minutes before they’re done
1 1/2 cups red lentils
1/2 an onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1/2 jalapeño, thinly sliced (omit seeds if you’re nervous bout the heat level) or a whole one if you like spice
3 cups water
1 1/2 tablespoons oil or ghee (clarified butter)
1 1/2 teaspoons cumin seeds
2 teaspoons brown/black mustard seeds
1 1/2 teaspoons ground turmeric
Put the lentils in a large sauce pan with the garlic, onion, Jalepeño and water. Bring to a boil and then turn down to a simmer and cover partially. Cook gently for about 12-15 minutes until the lentils are tender and beginning to fall apart.
In a small skillet heat the oil or ghee. When it’s shimmering add the mustard and cumin seeds and stir well. They will begin to pop and spit after 20 seconds or so. Add the turmeric, stir well and cook for another few seconds. Take off the heat and pour all of the spices and oil (scrape out well with a spatula) into the lentils along with 1 teaspoon salt and stir in well and cover. Garnish with chopped cilantro and season to taste with more salt if needed.