This is a dhaba-style chana dal that is rich and flavorful. It has an outstanding balance of flavors with onions, garlic, black cardamom, lots of ghee, and some smokiness. It is a little more complex than a homestyle dal, but well worth the effort.
About this Recipe
If you had this dish from a dhaba, it would have been cooked with an initial tadka that was allowed to simmer in with the dal in a large vat for at least 15 minutes. The second tadka is added just before serving to produce those beautiful aromatics. They would often also include a dhungar, a method of burning ghee over hot coal to give the dal a smokey flavor.
Instead of slowly cooking the dal in a large vat, this recipe uses an Instant Pot. You could also do this on the stovetop. This recipe also includes the dhungar, but it is optional. You can skip it and do without the smokey flavor or add a little liquid smoke if you prefer.
Chana dal – kala chana, split and hulled
Onions – key to caramelizing to a light brown color. You don’t just want them to be softened or golden; you want them to be brown.
Garlic – fresh garlic that is finely chopped works best here, but substitute for 1 teaspoon of granulated garlic in a pinch
Ginger – fresh chopped ginger adds flavor and texture to this dish but can be substituted for ground dried ginger if needed.
Black cardamom – has a bit of a smokey black cardamom. Typically used with meat, but also works great with this chana dal. Use the whole cardamom pod, then remove it after cooking dal in Instant Pot.
Ghee – this dal uses more ghee than homestyle dals usually do because it’s a restaurant dish. And also because ghee is used in pretty much every step: pressure cooker to prevent foaming over, first tadka to caramelize the onions and cook the masala, in the second tadka and for the dhungar.
The second tadka is optional but adds a little more complexity and color. It has:
- Nutmeg – adds a nutty and sweet flavor along with a beautiful aroma
- Kasoori methi – contributes a savory and slightly bitter flavor and aroma
- Kashmiri chili – adds visual appeal to the finishing tadka by being bright red.
- Dhungar: a dhungar is a traditional Indian method of adding smokiness to a dish. Burning charcoal produces carbon monoxide, which is a toxic, odorless gas. It is a good idea to burn your charcoal outside, or at least in a well-ventilated space. It only requires one coal and many people do it indoors with some basic precautions. Use caution when discarding the charcoal so it does not start a fire — immerse it in water or sand until cold.
- Undercooking the onions – should start to brown.
- Chana dal should be cooked to be easily mashed but still hold it’s shape. You don’t want a mush.
- For the second tadka, it’s essential to take the items off the heat immediately because all of the items in it can burn fast. You want your ghee to be warmed, but you don’t want to keep the vessel on the flame very long – add stuff and remove.
Simplifying the Recipe
If you want to make a chana dal but don’t want to make a complicated recipe, you can make the masala in the Instant Pot on saute mode at first, heat ghee, add cumin, caramelize the onions, and other ingredients. Then add in the dal and water, set that under high pressure for 12-15 minutes, then lift the lid and let it thicken a little by boiling for 5-10 minutes.
This method simplifies the steps and foregoes the dhungar. It won’t have the complexity of flavors but still makes for a delicious dal, perfect for a weeknight meal.
Restaurant Style Chana Dal
For the Pressure Cooker (Instant Pot)
- 1 ½ cups chana dal
- 4 cups water
- ½ tsp turmeric
- 1 black cardamom
- 3 cloves
- 1 piece of cinnamon
- 1 tsp salt
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 tsp oil or ghee
- Small handful of Cilantro chopped
- 1 Tbsp Lemon juice
- 3 Tbsp oil or ghee
- 1 medium onion finely chopped
- 6 cloves garlic finely chopped
- 1 tsp ginger finely chopped
- 1 tsp red chili powder
- ½ tsp turmeric powder
- 2 medium tomatoes chopped (about 1 cup)
- 1 tsp garam masala
- 2 green chilies cut into half lengthwise
- 1 tsp cumin seeds
- 2 tsp ghee or oil
- ½ tsp Kashmiri chili powder
- ⅛ tsp nutmeg
- ½ tsp kasoori methi
- 1 charcoal
- ½ tsp ghee
- Rinse and soak the dal for 30 minutes (soaking the dal is optional and can be skipped)
- Combine the dal, 4 cups water, turmeric, salt, black cardamom pod, cloves, cinnamon, bay leaves, and ghee in the pressure cooker (Instant Pot). Cook under high pressure for 12 minutes. (If the dal is unsoaked, cook for 15 minutes under high pressure).
- While the dal is cooking, heat a large pan with ghee or oil. Add cumin seeds and let sizzle for a few seconds. Add onions and cook until golden, about 5-8 minutes. Add ginger and garlic. Let cook until the onions have turned a medium brown and the garlic is golden about 2-3 more minutes.
- Add turmeric and red chili powder. Stir and let bloom for 20 seconds. Add tomatoes. Cook until jammy, about 5-6 minutes. Add garam masala, salt, and chilies. Stir.
- Pour in the cooked dal along with all the cooking liquid. Simmer for 15 minutes over medium heat. Stir in cilantro and lemon juice, and turn off the heat.
Dhungar / Coal Smoke (optional)
- In a well-ventilated place, heat one piece of charcoal over a flame (such as your stove – do not use lighter fluid or charcoal that includes lighter fluid) for 10 minutes, rotating every 2 minutes to evenly heat the whole charcoal. When the coal is hot, use tongs to transfer it to a small metal bowl.
- Place the bowl in the dal and cover it with a lid. Be sure that the charcoal bowl is set high enough that the dal will not directly make contact with the charcoal. Use a trivet if necessary. Allow it to sit, covered, for 10 minutes so that the smoke from the charcoal flavors the dal. After 10 minutes, remove the charcoal bowl from the dal.
Tadka #2 (optional)
- Heat ghee or oil in a small pan. Add kasoori methi, nutmeg, and chili. Remove from heat immediately. Pour over the dal and serve.