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Chana Dahl: Magic Beans
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Chana Dahl: Magic Beans

Chana Dahl (Chana Dal): Magic Beans

This lovely small bean is a staple in the Indian diet. It rather resembles a yellow split pea, which is sometimes used as a substitute, but the original is an early grandparent of the modern garbonza or chickpea, so the flavor and texture are quite different from peas. The chana dahl, also called cholar dahl or Bengal gram dal, has a remarkable quality; its glycemic index is 8, which means its effect on raising blood sugar is so gentle that it is a great food for hypoglycemic and diabetic people.

With a mild sweet flavor and a texture that doesn't get mushy, this bean can be pureed for soups, or used for loaves and patties, hummus/ bean dip, and salads or casseroles. It cooks fast and does not require long pre-soaking.

Available in Indian markets, many Middle Eastern markets, online and increasingly in natural foods groceries, these minimally processed beans need careful washing and rinsing to remove dust and bad beans before cooking. You may also find them lab chana dal labeled as "Organic Aztec Split Garbanzos," but it is in fact chana dal. The word "Aztec," refers to a market class of the chana dal. Bob's Red Mill packages chana dahl and they are becoming more popular and thus more widely available throughout the US.

Many great chana dahl links are available; search on chana dal, chana dahl, or toor dal. Here are two of my favorites:

Rick Mendosa's site Rick is the world wide web anchorman for glycemic index information and has lots of other recipes and information.

International vegetarian Union- Indian bean and dal recipes

Chana Dal Barley Pilaf

Serves 6

1/4 cup vegetable oil
2 bay leaves
6 peppercorns
6 black cardamom pods, broken open
6 whole cloves
1/3 cinnamon stick (1" piece)
1 1/2 teaspoons cumin seed
1 1/2 cups chana dal, cleaned, soaked in water for 2 hours and drained
2 1/2 cups pearled barley
1 tablespoon salt
4 1/2 cups water

Heat oil in cooker on medium-high heat. Add bay leaves, peppercorns, cardamoms, cloves, cinnamon and cumin seed. Stir for a few seconds till cumin seeds darken a few shades.

Add dal. Stir fry for about 3 minutes. Add barley and stir fry till barley just begins to color (approximately 3 minutes). Add salt and water. Stir. Cover tightly and cook about 40 minutes. Open, fluff, and discard bay leaves, cardamoms and cinnamon. Serve hot with plain yogurt or raita (yogurt-cucumber dressing)

To use a pressure cooker, close cooker. Bring to full pressure on high heat. Reduce heat and cook for 3 minutes. Remove cooker from heat. Allow to cool naturally. Release pressure. Open cooker. Fluff up gently with a fork to separate grains. Discard bay leaves, cardamoms and cinnamon. Serve hot, accompanied with plain yogurt or raita.

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Ethiopian Alicha Wot (Spicy Stewed Chana Dal or Split Peas)

Variation: Indian
The final dish will resemble spicy creamed corn. It will thicken slightly as it cools. Serve with Ethiopian Injera (teff pancakes) or even Indian Chapati, or over rice or barley.

1 1/2 cups Chana Dal (may substitute yellow split peas)
2 cups finely chopped onion
1-2 inches ginger, finely mashed/chopped
1/4 cup garlic, finely mashed/chopped
1/4 to 1/2 cup spicy butter or olive oil (below)
1-2 tablespoons turmeric
1/2 teaspoon cardamom
white or black pepper to taste
salt to taste

Indian variation: you will add 2 cups diced tomatoes and 1/4 cup diced mild green chilis after the onions are translucent. Add 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon powder and 1/2 tablespoon garam masala with the other spices. Garnish the cooked dish with fresh cilantro leaves.

Sort and wash Chana Dal, removing all black or green pieces as these add bitterness. Cover with water , 3 inches above the level of the beans. The liquid will provide the "gravy" for this dish. Simmer gently. When dal are almost translucent and are softened, set aside. Some of them may split; this is okay. This step can be done ahead, but the dish is even better if the whole stew is completed and then allowed to blend together.

Meanwhile, in another heavy pot, sweat the onions in a little bit of water until very translucent. Add the garlic and ginger and saute' for a minute or two. Add oil or butter and saute' until the mixture is very softened. This must not burn or bitter taste will result. Add the remaining ingredients except salt (will toughen dal...add at end to taste) and fry until the oil separates.

Add the dal with their liquid and cook until the dal are very soft, stirring frequently to prevent sticking.

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Spicy Oil/Butter

To make spicy oil/ butter, gently heat a pint of olive oil (preferably extra virgin) or ghee (clarified butter) with sliced onions, smashed garlic heads, smashed ginger, cracked or ground nutmeg, black peppercorns, a little turmeric, cinnamon stick, cardamom pods. You are not frying, you are actually simmering the spices in the oil. The result will be a colored and fragrant ghee or olive oil. I use about a tablespoon of each spice, adjusting the onion or garlic to taste. Strain the oil into a dry container and store refrigerated.

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Chana Dal Guacamole

Puree cooked chana dahl and mix with equal parts pureed avacado. Use your favorite guacamole recipe.

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