Though lentils are eaten in almost every part of India, the notion that “dal”—at least the version that you’d get in most Indian restaurants—is a mainstay of all Indian cuisines, is a largely oversimplified one.
The dish that comes to many people’s minds when they hear the word dal is the dal tadka that Indian restaurants abroad (and in India, if I’m being honest) invariably have on their menus. I’m a huge fan of this form of seasoned dal (usually masoor). Yet, it’s just one of the many ways that Indians cook lentils. And though, from the outside, many of these dishes may appear to be what has come to be called “dal,” they often draw on very specific, regional, techniques, flavour combinations, and ingredients to make them distinctive.
This dosakaya pappu from Telangana is a great example. Soupy, mild, earthy, and filled with tender little morsels of the juicy, lemon-yellow summer squashes called dosakaya in Telugu (often sold as mengaluru southekayi, or Mangalore cucumber in Karnataka), it could pass for dal—and yet it has a nature all its own. I got this recipe from the head cook, Amrita, at a children’s home outside Warangal, in the state of Telangana. Pappus often include tamarind or another souring agent, but her version was utterly spartan—and delicious. Just some spices given a brief turn in hot oil along with chopped onions, ginger, and garlic before the lentils and dosakaya get added with plenty of water and the pappu slowly simmered till the flavors meld and the dosakaya and lentils are soft enough to crush easily between your fingers.
Though my general instinct is to top every dal-like Indian dish with a splash of hot seasoned oil—the ogaranne of Karnataka or the tadka of further north), there’s something about the hazy, rounded flavour of this bowl of soft-cooked lentils and squash that is perfect just as it is, served with hot rice—well, and maybe a nice big dollop of ghee to make it shine.
1 tsp cumin seed
1 tsp black mustard seeds
1 small onion, peeled, halved and sliced thinly through the root
2 small green chillies, finely sliced
1 tsp ginger-garlic paste
½ tsp turmeric powder
1 cup toor dal, rinsed
2 small dosakaya, seeds removed and discarded, flesh cut into 1/2-inch cubes
Neutral vegetable oil for cooking
In a medium saucepan over high heat (or a clay pot, if you have it), heat 1 tbsp of the vegetable oil till it begins to shimmer. Add the cumin and black mustard.
When the cumin turns a shade darker and the mustard seeds begin to pop, add the sliced onion and stir well.
Cook, stirring often, for 5 minutes, until the onions are translucent and limp and just beginning to turn reddish-brown.
Add the ginger-garlic paste and cook, stirring often, for another 2–3 minutes, or just until they no longer smell raw.
Add the green chilli and turmeric, stir to combine, and then add the rinsed dhal, cubed dosakaya, and enough water to cover by half an inch.
Add a teaspoon of salt to the cooking lentils, turn the heat down to low and cook at a bare simmer for 20–30 minutes, or until the lentils are soft enough to easily crush between your fingers. If, at any point, the pan seems to be drying out, add more water as needed.
Using a mathani (or a sturdy wooden spoon, if you don’t have one) vigorously stir the lentils to make the pappu creamy. Check for seasoning and adjust as needed.
Serve while still piping hot.