Five Spices Indian-Style Dal

The art of curry seems to offer endless possibilities. It’s like life itself; no sooner is one challenge mastered, along comes another to keep things interesting. On an ordinary day, it makes one stop to think. Or reflect. Or meditate. Or simply ask, now what?

This fickle life that requires endless feeding seems to go in a never-ending spiral. And what better way to sustain that by mastering a wealth of good curries? According to Buddhist teachings, we are all a work in progress and never really done. Birth and death simply throw us from one situation into another, like one door opening as another one closes; but what is it that walks through these doors? A nice question. However, such musings don’t usually get in the way of enjoying the amazing flavour of spices – taste being one of those transient six senses that certainly make life wonderful.

This particular dish exerts the boldness of chilli, cumin and fenugreek, paired with the delicate fragrance of toasted nigella, fennel and mustard seeds (a spice blend known as Panch Phoron). A spiral of culinary delights. Mmm. And unlike me, don’t be misled into thinking that curries have to spicy-hot to enjoy all their superb nuances.



3 medium carrots
250 g (about 2½ cups florets) cauliflower (or broccoli if you prefer)
1 green bell pepper
½ teaspoon turmeric powder, or 10 g (2 teaspoons) fresh turmeric
350 g (1¼ cups) chana or mung lentils (dal)
750 ml (3½ cups) water
2 bay leaves
Oil for frying
1 teaspoon dried red chilli flakes

5 Spices seasoning blend (Panch Phoron);
½ teaspoon cumin seeds
½ teaspoon fennel seeds
½ teaspoon mustard seeds
½ teaspoon nigella seeds (kalonji or black cumin)
¼ teaspoon fenugreek seeds

Fennel, Cumin, Mustard, Fenugreek, and Nigella seeds (Panch Phoron)
Chana Dal
  • Peel and medium-dice the carrots.
  • Cut the cauliflower into bite-size florets.
  • Deseed and medium-dice the bell pepper.
  • If using fresh turmeric, mince or grate.
  • Pick through, then rinse and drain the lentils.

  • In a stew pot, heat a little oil over a medium flame and stir-fry the bell pepper until caramelised.
  • Put in the lesser amount of water first, the turmeric and bay leaves, and bring to a boil over a high flame. Add the lentils and return to a boil stirring constantly. Reduce the flame, loosely cover, and simmer until tender, about 1 hour for chana or 30-35 minutes for mung. Skim any foam that appears. Stir regularly to prevent sticking, adding the extra water if needed to keep them loose and just covered. (Tip: to speed things up, cook the lentils in a pressure cooker; heat to high pressure and cook chana for about 10 minutes and mung for about 5 minutes. As soon as the pressure is reached, reduce the flame and set a timer. Release the pressure by placing it in the sink under a trickle of cold water.)
  • Bring a small pot of salted water to a rapid boil, drop in the carrots, return to a boil and simmer for about one minute, or until tender. Scoop out with a slotted spoon and set aside.
  • Next, drop the cauliflower into the boiling water and simmer for about one minute, or until tender. Scoop out and set aside with the carrots. Cover to keep warm.
  • Heat two tablespoons of oil in a frying pan over a low-medium flame. Put in the chillies, cumin, fennel, mustard, nigella, and fenugreek seeds. Coat with the oil, cover with a splatter guard and gently fry until the mustard seeds stop spitting and turn a shade darker. Set aside.
  • When the lentils are tender, stir in the carrots and cauliflower, and heat through. Lastly, add the five spices and chillies. If needed, add a little hot water to loosen the lentils. Salt to taste.
  • Serve alongside brown basmati rice, chutney, and grated cucumber combined with fresh mint, yoghurt, and a touch of garlic.

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