How to cook Indian lentils at home, according to a local chef

Madhavi Tandon was browsing the shelves of King Soopers at the start of the pandemic when she came across a small jar of ghee, an Indian butter made from cultured cream. “I was blown away,” says Tandon. “Who eats this ghee here?”

Tandon moved to Colorado from Pune, India more than 20 years ago, and the small discovery told Tandon how Indian cuisine is becoming more mainstream for the average Colorado consumer. His next thought: “I should [make ghee] because I’m sure I’ve been doing ghee longer than King Soopers,” Tandon says.

In 2020, Tandon launched Maia Foods, which offers pre-packaged Indian meal kits and homemade ghee, biscotti and spice mixes for sale at Ruby’s Market in Curtis Park and other local outlets. The chef is a professor of education at the University of Colorado at Denver—and Maia Foods, she says, is an extension of her classroom work.

“Food is a platform to claim your heritage and your history,” says Tandon. “Although Starbucks makes turmeric lattes, there is space for someone like me to claim their own platform to talk about food culture, because it’s not just about food; there is a story here.

Tandon’s kitchen story began among the women of her family, where every night in a West Indian kitchen they would come together to share stories, the burdens of their day and cook a meal. Today, Tandon lives in Aurora, thousands of miles from Maharashtra, where she grew up, but the teacher, business owner and mother uses the recipes and techniques she inherited from her family’s matriarchs to fill the gap between his home abroad and that of Colorado.

Most importantly, she started cooking to feed her two daughters, who are now both in their twenties. “Growing up here, my girls ate all kinds of food, but it motivates them – what we had tonight, the dhaba dal, it motivates them,” Tandon says. “It keeps the family alive for them.”

5280 went behind the scenes at Tandon’s house, where she shared the importance of dhaba dal, a meal of pigeon peas, split moong dal and split red lentils that she makes every time her daughters come home the House. Dal, which is a term meaning “lentils” in Hindi, is a staple in Indian cuisines. Here’s a look at the Tandon process and the recipe behind the light and flavorful dish that’s reminiscent of Tandon at home.

Dhaba Dal

Shop for all the ingredients for the dal at Tandon’s favorite Indian market, Bombay Bazaar. The dish can be prepared with an Instant Pot or a pressure cooker.

1/2 cup yellow split pigeon peas (arhar or toor in Hindi)
1/2 cup split and peeled red lentils (masoor dal in Hindi)
1/4 cup split and skinned green gram (moong or mung dal in Hindi)
Pinch of asafoetida powder (dried sap made from ferula root, which is part of the celery family)
1/2 tsp. turmeric powder
2 tbsp. salt
2 tbsp. ghee (preferably), butter or oil
1 C. cumin seeds
1 C. grated ginger
1 C. chopped garlic
1/2 cup chopped tomatoes
1/2 cup chopped onions
1–2 whole fresh green chilies
1 C. red chilli powder
1 C. garam masala
Chopped cilantro
Freshly squeezed lime
Naan, roti or rice, for serving

To make the lentils:

  1. Rinse the yellow split peas, red lentils and green gram dal thoroughly under running water and let them soak for an hour.

Using a pressure cooker

  1. Pour the drained lentils into the pressure cooker, then add 2.5 cups of water. Let the water boil gently; skim the foam with a ladle, which can help reduce the bitterness of the lentils (optional).
  2. Add turmeric powder, asafoetida and salt.
  3. Close the pressure cooker lid and cook over medium heat for a whistle, then turn the heat down to simmer and set a timer for 10 minutes. Turn off the heat when the timer goes out.
  4. Let the pot pressure drop (about 10-15 minutes) before opening the lid.

Use an Instant Pot

  1. Drain the water and pour the lentils into the Instant Pot. Add 2.5 cups of water.
  2. Add turmeric powder, asafoetida and salt. Close the lid and the vent.
  3. Set the “Pressure Cook” mode to “High” for 30 minutes.
  4. After cooking, let the pressure release naturally (about 10-15 minutes).

To make the tadka (seasoning):

  1. Heat ghee (preferably), or butter or oil in a skillet over high heat.
  2. Add the cumin seeds and let it crackle.
  3. Add garlic and ginger paste and sauté for 10 seconds.
  4. Add the chopped onions and sauté until the onions are translucent and lightly browned.
  5. Combine the chopped tomatoes and green chiles and cook, covered, until the mixture is soft and mushy.
  6. Add red chili powder and sauté for 30 seconds.
  7. Add seasoning to cooked dal and stir gently. Add the garam masala and salt to taste. Cover and simmer on lowest heat for five minutes.
  8. Remove from fire.
  9. Garnish with chopped cilantro and a squeeze of lime. Serve hot with naan, roti or plain rice.

Watch Tandon’s tour of the Bombay Bazaar grocery store in Aurora, part of our series featuring local chefs.

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