I wanted to start our Dhal of the Month series with this recipe for Huli Tovve not because it’s the dhal I’m most familiar with, but, rather, because, despite using many of the same ingredients and techniques as the dhal I ate growing up, its flavor is so distinctive and different from anything I ate as a child.
The name "huli tovve" just means “sour dhal” in Kannada, and that’s really what stands out about this dish, which is typical of Kannadiga Brahmin cooking with its intriguing blend of tangy, herbaceous, salty, and sweet flavors. The green mango in the dhal, and the crumbled salt-cured chillies give it a sparky acidity that is a lovely complement to the sweet and rich coconut and the tender cooked lentils. Other versions of huli tovve might include other vegetables or use tamarind instead of green mango. It's a wide and fairly welcome category of dhal-based dishes. This particular recipe comes from Sudha Venkataraman, who lives in Bangalore. She cautions that it is important that the dhal not be too thin or its flavor will seem diluted and underwhelming.
A note on uppu mensinkayi: These odd little cured chillies are a fascinating ingredient and have a truly unique and special flavor. Their name literally means “salt chilli.” They’re made by dipping fresh chillies in yogurt, packing them with salt, and letting them dry in the sun. They have an intensely salty, funky flavor—they’re packed with umami, if you think in those terms. I should note, though, since people often make this mistake: they’re meant to be used as a spice, not eaten on their own—in which form they are almost unbearably salty. They can be a little hard to find, but I highly recommend hunting them down since they add a certain irreplaceable something to the dish. They’re often sold in Indian grocery stores as “curd chillies.”
A note on green mango: Green mangoes are just unripened mangoes, and are firmer and more tart than their ripened counterparts. You can find these in the produce aisle of most Indian grocery stores and in some Vietnamese, Thai, and Indonesian stores.
A note on seasoning: A common practice with dhal in many parts of India is to reserve the final seasoning of the dish to the very end, at which point spices are quickly fried in hot oil or ghee before being poured on top of the cooked lentils. This last-minute spicing goes by many names ("chaunk," "tadka," "phoron," "ogarannne," to name just a very few) and though the exact ingredients may vary, the idea is the same. It’s imperative to remember that the oil is very hot, and that the spices added to it can very quickly burn, which can ruin your dhal, so watch your spices like a hawk and make sure to have all your ingredients ready and measured out before you start.
2 cups toovar dhal (soaked for at least 4 hours)
½ tsp fenugreek seeds
1 medium green mango, peeled and grated (watch out for and discard the small seed and its fibrous case, at the center of the fruit)
1 cup fresh grated coconut, or grated frozen coconut, defrosted
2–3 fresh green chiles, finely chopped
1 tbsp crushed palm or cane jaggery
¼ tsp asafetida
2 tbsp ghee
Ghee for cooking
2–3 uppu mensinkayi (see note)
4 tsp urad dhal
1 branch curry leaves, stripped from the stem
2 dried red chillies
¼ tsp asafetida
Place the lentils and fenugreek seeds in a heavy saucepan and top with cool water to cover by ½ an inch. Bring to a slow boil and let cook on low heat for 20–30 minutes adding more water if, at any point, the lentils seem to be drying out, or sticking to the bottom of the pan.
When the lentils are just tender, turn off the heat. The mixture should still be loose but the lentils should not be swimming in their cooking liquid.
Add the grated green mango, coconut, chopped green chilli, jaggery, and ¼ tsp asafetida to the saucepan. Pour 2 tbsp of melted ghee on top of the lentils and continue cooking for 10–15 minutes, until all the ingredients are well combined and the dhal has thickened to a fairly stodgy consistency. Stir frequently to make sure the dhal doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pan and scorch.
In a small frying pan, heat 2–3 tbsp of ghee till melted and shimmering. Add the uppu mensinkayi and fry, briefly, till aromatic. Turn off the heat, remove the chiles, and set them aside.
Turn the heat back on under the ghee in the small saucepan. When it begins to shimmer once again, add the urad dhal and red chiles and cook, stirring often, until the dhal has turned a very light gold and the chiles are slightly blistered. The lentils will continue to cook, so make sure not to let them get too dark. This entire process should take no longer than a minute.
Add the curry leaves next and stand back—they will sputter as they hit the hot oil. Once the sputtering has died down, add the ¼ tsp of asafetida and stir once, quickly, to blend with the oil, before turning off the heat.
Pour the seasoned oil over the dhal, making sure to scrape all traces out of the pan with a rubber spatula. Crumble the uppu mensinkayi over the dhal, stir well, and taste for salt. Adjust seasoning as needed.