[Tiki Misra’s Mung Dal: Photos by Linda Swaty, 2012]
About Mung Dal Soup
Mung dal soup, as my family will tell you, is far and away my favorite food. I’d eat it every single day if I could — and have done so in India. It doesn’t take much more than that and a couple of hot chappatis to make me happy.
Dal is the Hindi term for dried beans. Mung dal (Phaseolus aureus or radiatus) is the split and husked version of the small green whole mung bean, that is the size of a BB. (Whole mung beans are commonly used in the U.S. for bean sprouts.) Mung dal is yellow, flat, and oval-shaped, about 1/8” long. It is the most popular dal in North India, cooks relatively quickly, and is easy to digest.
My approach to cooking Indian food has changed over the last thirty years: When I was in my twenties and thirties, I was attracted to the pungency of chili peppers. I gradually eliminated them from my diet as I began learning about the ayurvedic properties of spices, and how to finely calibrate seasoning to benefit one’s constitution.
The six basic tastes are sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter, and astringent. The artful combination of these five tastes produces depth of flavor. Mung dal is primarily sweet and secondarily astringent. Among the countless ways to prepare mung dal, varying the way it is spiced tempers these tastes and their effects on body and mind.
Mung dal calms vata and pitta. Its sweet taste, which consists of the earth and water elements, tends to cool and aggravate kapha. But, its kapha nature is offset by warming spices such as cumin, mustard seed, ginger root, and black pepper. The lightness and dryness of its mild astringency, a combination of air and earth, aggravates vata. However, the heaviness and oiliness of the salt and the baghar — as well as additional water — counteract vata. For those with a pitta constitution, additional coriander powder and coriander leaf (cilantro in Spanish) offset the pungent ginger, garlic, and mustard seed, cooling it even more. Because the pungency of onion is moderated by sautéing, it can be substituted for the hotter garlic.
Here’s two recipes that use the same spices. As Tiki repeatedly emphasized, this is just the way she made it for us on one specific day. I, too, vary my recipes according to the desired taste, time available, and ingredients on hand. It’s rarely the same.
Tiki’s Misra’s Simple Mung Dal Soup [Serves 7]
This is a fast, simple recipe that emphasizes the taste of the dal itself. Traditionally, one or two vegetable dishes are also served with the meal. In that case, the simple seasoning does not duplicate the seasoning of the other dishes.
1. Dry-roast 1 cup mung dal in a heavy skillet over moderately-high heat, stirring frequently until faintly red. Then wash.
2. Add the toasted mung dal to 8 cups boiling water in a covered heavy pot.
3. Skim the gas-producing froth, then add 1 tsp turmeric and cook 45 minutes at a low boil. Add 2 chopped tomatoes and cook for 5 minutes more. Alternately, Indians use pressure cookers, which cuts the time in half.
4. Add baghar (see below), 1 cube jaggery, salt, and coriander leaf to dal mixture and cook for only 5-10 minutes more to retain the fragrance of the baghar.
Baghar (also called tarka in Bengali, or the onomatopoetic chaunk in Hindi):
Baghar, “to temper,” is the Bengali term for the spices fried in ghee added to the soup near the end of cooking. Note that yogins and Jains do not eat onions and garlic because they are too rajasic (stimulating to the senses).
1. Fry in 2 Tbsp ghee, butter, or oil: 1 tsp Tiki’s masala (see below), until mustard seeds pop. That’s all for a simple dal.
2. [Optionally, add 1 diced onion, 1 tsp fresh grated ginger root, black pepper, and whole green chilis (for flavor; need not be eaten).]
Tiki Misra’s Panch Puran (“Five Sizzle”) Masala
A masala is a spice/herb combination that varies according to region and family tradition. In Bengali this specific mixture is called Panch Puran; in Tiki’s native Oriya it is called Pancha Photan. Tiki stores one part each of the following five seeds in a jar for quick dispensation. Although kalonji resembles onion seed, it is entirely unrelated to the onion. It is sometimes called kala-jira, “black-cumin” in Hindi, but I’ve seen black-cumin that looks, and tastes, entirely different than kalonji. Don’t allow methi seed to turn red, else it becomes very bitter.
black mustard seed
kalonji (“black onion” seed, or Nigella sativa).
methi seed (fenugreek, or Trigonella foenumgraecum)
Bruce Roger’s Muli Mung Dal Soup [Serves 7]
This is a more complicated recipe. But, including a vegetable in the recipe can substitute for a separate vegetable dish. I have substituted the more readily available Japanese daikon radish for the Indian muli radish. Daikon lightens the dal’s heaviness. Its pungency blends well with the mild flavor of mung.
1. Add 1 cup washed mung dal to 8 cups boiling water in a covered heavy pot over high heat. (It’s quicker not to roast it.)
2. Skim the gas-producing froth, then add 1 tsp ghee and 1 tsp turmeric, and cook 45 minutes at a low boil.
3. Add baghar (see below), 1 cube jaggery, salt, and 1/4 cup coriander leaf to dal mixture and cook in for 5-10 minutes to integrate the onion and vegetable tastes.
1. Fry in 1 Tbsp ghee: 2 Tbsp Tiki’s masala. Add 1 diced onion, then add 2 cloves garlic.
2. Add 2 chopped tomatoes, 1/4 cup chopped green bell pepper, 1 tsp fresh grated ginger root, and 1-2 cups grated daikon radish. (I omitted the black pepper and green chilis to make it less hot, substituting daikon radish and green bell pepper, which also adds a juiciness along with complex vegetable flavors.)
All of these food products are available at Jay International Food Co. at 3172 South Grand Ave., and its sister store, Global Foods at 421 North Kirkwood Road. The joke in our family is that we can only live near one or the other: We lived for 20 years within walking distance of the former, and for the last 9 years only slightly further away from the latter. We also patronize Seema Enterprises at 10635 Page Ave., the first Indian grocery store in St. Louis and also our travel agency.
 vata (air and space): cold, light, dry; pitta (fire): hot, light; oily; kapha (earth and water): cold, heavy, oil
 Mung Dal Washing & Soaking: To wash dal before cooking, pour it into a sieve strainer and dunk it into a pot of water, mixing it by hand. Discard the cloudy water and repeat three or four times, until the water is clear. This prevents excessive gas-producing froth from building up at the beginning of cooking. Mung dal requires only a minimal soaking prior to cooking, but longer soaking does de-gas it. We cook it in a large covered cast-iron pot with more water than necessary to allow skimming the froth and evaporation.
 Cook it long enough to break down and dissolve the dal into a consistent viscosity where the individual beans are not identifiable.
 Jaggery is a solidified sweetener from the unrefined juice of sugar cane.
 Ghee is clarified butter; all milk solids and moisture have been removed, leaving only clear butterfat. It can withstand higher heat than butter before burning.