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Winter Daal Recipe

This Indian dish is a winter favorite, thanks to the healing properties of the spices

by Nara Shin
on 16 January 2014

Longtime Washington DC resident Rano Singh, on a mission to prepare traditional Indian meals, became frustrated with the lack of spices available in her town. Even with regular trips to suburban Indian grocery stores, she found that often what greets customers are spices that have been sitting in their plastic packaging for so long that "it was difficult for an Indian, like me, to distinguish between a brown powder that could be cumin, or coriander, or even garam masala," says Singh. Not one to sit back, she is taking matters into her own hands. Through a Kickstarter campaign, Singh is transforming a former nightclub in the historic Dupont Circle neighborhood into an organic Indian grocery and cooking school to bring the freshest ingredients to Washington DC, and empower others to use these ingredients with confidence.

Pansaari will be a communal space that invites people to linger and learn—not only about how to nourish the body, but also about each other, which is why the chai bar won't be allowing any take out.


The organic produce will be as local as possible, and the spices will be sourced directly from India. Singh has developed relationships with small farm collectives like Morarka Organic and Ahana Organic Farm whose crops are certified organic, and who also employs a large number of women. Goods sold at Paansari will have very little packaging in order to reduce waste—but also lets the food speak for itself in its pure, natural state. Spices not only enhance the flavor of the food, Singh notes, but many people do not realize that they pack a punch of health benefits even in trace amounts. Her cooking lessons will focus on "how to combine spices, and how to add more of the unusual spices such as cloves, nigella, mustard and cardamom to their diet."

Singh kindly offered a simple guide to cooking daal, made even better with your own box of fresh, genuine Indian spices that can be purchased the Kickstarter campaign to make Pansaari a reality.

Basic Daal Recipe

"Chicken soup became my go-to spirit-restoring food over the 30 DC winters I’ve braved. But recently, I’ve begun to crave daal—my childhood comfort food—when I become winter weary. Daal is nourishing and easy to make but it's especially a cold season favorite due the healing properties of the spices that are in its time-tested recipes. It is a staple food across the varied regions of India, each of which have their own cuisine developed in concert with the climate and the local seasonal produce; most families eat it daily.

Spices are extremely rich sources of plant compounds that have proven to be anti-inflammatory and antioxidant. Inflammation and oxidation we now know are the main processes that cause chronic disease. More so chronic disease most often begins with gut dysfunction, so bringing balance to this system shifts us towards optimal health. You will find that all of the spices suggested for daal below function as digestive aids.

The foundation of daal is lentils cooked with turmeric and salt; according to Ayurvedic principles, the spices are added to make the protein in lentils easier to digest. So the spices, especially turmeric, should be gently heated in oil to release their full potency in a way that can be absorbed by the digestive system. The most confusing part of cooking daal for the first time is figuring out the lentil-to-water ratio. This is because of the variety of lentils: Some need more water and longer cooking time, and some less."

1 cup red lentils (masoor) rinsed
2 cups water
2 teaspoons turmeric powder
2-3 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon oil (use whatever you normally use for cooking)

In a saucepan with a lid, heat the oil, add the turmeric, lentils, water, and the salt. Stir. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover and simmer for 15 minutes. That’s all you need to do to make basic daal. The fun part is creating different variations by adding spices throughout the process.


There are many different spices and herbs you can add according to taste, healing properties, and the season. Try any combination of what you have at hand, or of what your taste buds are craving—there's no right or wrong. Cayenne pepper, cumin powder, cumin seeds, fenugreek seeds, mustard seeds, ginger powder and cloves are spices that can be added with the turmeric.


Chopped onions, garlic, green chili, fresh ginger can be added after the spices have gently heated for about 30 seconds. The spices should be heated, but not browned, to retain their potency. Chopped tomatoes can be added once the onions, etc have cooked. Cook for about 1 minute. Again, don’t overcook to retain the nutrient value.


Then add the lentils. Once you become familiar with the basic daal, explore combinations of lentils. Whole lentils add fiber, texture, and different consistencies.


Add the water. If you are using whole lentils you will need more water. You can always add water during the cooking process, until you find a ratio that works for you. Simmer for 15 minutes, covering the pot.


Nigella seeds, bay leaf, black peppercorn, black cardamom, whole dried Serrano chilies are also often used, and are specially useful if you are making daal to warm you during the winter. Asafetida and curry leaves are also delicious, though they are a bit of an acquired taste.

The daal has finished cooking and is ready.


Tempering the “Tadka”: Tadka is added to the daal after it has cooked, and usually just before serving. Butter, oil, or ghee is heated, and any of the spices you choose to enhance either the taste or the health benefits are heated in the oil, and this mixture is poured over the cooked daal.


Cilantro and lime: this is my very favorite addition. Coming home after a long day, nothing restores my spirit more than a bowl of hot steaming daal to warm off winter's chill, garnished with chopped fresh cilantro and a squeeze of lime to remind me that the fresh green of spring is on its way.

Images courtesy of Rano Singh

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