In India, many people are vegetarian, so they eat a lot of legumes and rice as their main sources of proteins. Legumes (also known as pulses) are peas or beans. The most similar things in our cuisine here in the US might be split peas or lentils. You might see this spelled either as “dal” or “dahl”.
Some of the most common forms of dahl or dal include:
Masoor dahl – red lentils
If you’ve ever been in an organic store where they have bulk foods you might have seen bins full of small, flattish round, red or reddish orange legumes. This is a type of dahl called masoor dahl in India.
Chana dahl – split garbanzos (chickpea)
This is a smaller type of garbanzo than the stuff we find on the grocery store shelves here. It can be very difficult at first to tell the difference between chana dal and Toor dal – they’re about the same size and about the same color. However, chana dal is slightly irregular in shape (a little bit lumpy looking of you look closely) and a bit thicker than toor dal. The whole bean is closer to round in shape than whole toor dal (pigeon peas). So if you can compare them side by side, chana is slightly larger, thicker, bumpier. Toor dal is flatter, slightly smaller, more regular in shape.
Toor dahl – split pigeon peas
Note the greater symmetry and more flattish shape of this compared to Chana dahl. Toor dal is often seen in Indian groceries in either oily or “unoily” or “dry” varieties. When I first started cooking dal, my (now ex) husband encouraged me to buy the oily variety on the premise that it cooked faster.
Well, it doesn’t, and not only does it not cook any faster, it tends to foam a lot and make a mess if you don’t watch it very closely, and it’s WAY higher in calories. In short, I recommend buying the dry version. I have used it exclusively in all recipes calling for toor dahl for a good 20 years now.
Mung or moong dal – split mung beans
Mung dal and urad dahl (see below) can also be difficult to differentiate. In general, urad dahl will be chalkier and nearly white, while mung dahl will be more of a creamy yellow. Whole mung is a small oblong bean with a black eye and a green skin. The whole, unhulled mung bean is used to grow the bean sprouts we see in a lot of Chinese dishes.
Urad dal – Vigna mungo (I don’t have a European equivalent for this)
Urad is very similar in appearance to mung dal, urad being whiter compared to creamy yellow for mung. The whole bean is very dark, nearly black, small and oblong. The whole bean is easily differentiated from whole mung.
Rajma dal – red kidney beans
Rajma dal is simply whole red kidney beans. Generally the varieties used in India are smaller than some of the varieties you will find on grocery store shelves in the US. If you have a choice when buying kidney beans for use in a recipe calling for rajma dal, buy the smaller size bean when available.
There are many other types of dal but these are the most common types, and the ones I most often cook with. Dals are used whole, hulled and split, or ground into flour. Besan, for instance, is ground chana dal. Some dals are wet-ground (you soak them and then grind them in special grinders to make a paste) and then fermented to make dosai (sort of like a crepe) or idli (a steamed rice-dal patty frequently served with sambar). Some people manage this in a conventional blender, but I’ve never been able to get it to work, so I’ve learned alternate recipes for idli and dosai that use dal flours and rice flour.
The most frequent use of dal in my household is to make a variety of different spiced dal dishes. The most common of these is a recipe for tomato dal using toor dal. See the recipe for Tomato Dahl
Where to buy Indian dals