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Oct 7, 2012 08:48 AM

South Indian use of lentils in temperings

What are the standard lentils to fry as a temperings?

I love the nutty flavor and crunch of fried daal, it's quite like a fried nut, but I have noticed that if they are not fried perfectly, they can be dangerous to the teeth. Are these fried lentils thought to contribute other properties to a dish or chutney besides nuttiness and crunch?

In S. Indian cooking, I have seen temperings of daal such as split yellow channa daal, skinless split white urad/maash daal, (Sorry to use Hindi names due to my own limitations.) Are there other options?

I don't know if there are rules for which daal to fry for which dish, or if certain regions prefer one above does that work? Can you tell a dish's region by which daal has been selected for the tempering, among other variations in ingredients?

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  1. Hi LuckyF: I can only speak from my own regional perspective (Tamilian Iyengar home cooking, which has lots of similarities to other TamBram cooking, or other South Indian veg cooking, though there are some differences here and there). The familial differences boggle my mind - the same dish made very differently by different families.

    Urad Dal and Chana Dal (as you have noted) are the most commonly used dals in tempering (tadka) especially in vegetable side dishes. When the dal has fried long enough, and then the vegetables are added and the whole dish is cooked long enough, the dals should not be tooth-shatteringly hard any more.

    Dals are sometimes soaked and then fried. Soaked dals are also added as a non-fried ingredient (e.g. moong dal soaked is added to kosumalli).

    When used in tempering, yes they add a nutty flavour note that rounds out the more assertive spices (e.g. mustard seed, red chilli etc.). Which dal goes with which dish, I don't know if there is a rule of thumb or a logic other than families / communities have typically used one or other for a specific dish and keep doing that. I have noticed chana dal more often used with potato (e.g. making the filling for masala dosai). I also think the dals add a slight thickening factor.

    Re regional variations, I think peanuts are also used, and seem a little more frequent as you move up the peninsula toward Andhra and Maharashtra. Other than that, I don't know much more.

    Toasted dals are also ground and used as a key ingredient in masala podis (powders), e.g. sambar masala. Sambar itself is made from toor dal, but the sambar powder has toasted and ground chana dal along with the other spices. Rasam powder has toor dal toasted and ground even though it is often based on a toor dal broth. Koottu (in the Tamilian style) has chana dal+urad dal toasted and ground. Morekozhambu has chana dal ground (which gives this dish the similarity to North Indian kadhis which are made of besan+buttermilk). In these applications, the dals definitely work to thicken the end product, along with contributing taste.


    1. Yes, very helpful, thanks.

      I just spoke with a Kannadiga friend as well and she said that her family uses toor for their temperings and gave the example of lemon rice. That was interesting since I have usually seen that with split channa. She didn't know if this was a family or regional preference.

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      1. re: luckyfatima

        One more that I forgot to add was white sesame (til), used as a tempering, though it is not a dal. Toor in lemon rice is interesting. I have usually seen split chana, or peanuts, or cashewnuts, which brings me to another thought, that the use of nute and dals in tempering (even though in quantities like 1 tsp) may add a small shot of protein to a dish.