Golden sweet potato dal

  • About an hour, mostly unattended.

This has become my standard vegetarian contribution to potlucks. It manages to be both comforting and (to American palates, at least) exotic; it always gets raves, and I have been asked for the recipe more times over the years than I can count.

The soup combines red lentils with sweet potatoes and a bloom of spices that will transforms a rich but otherwise rather bland soup into something utterly magnificent. I can say “magnificent” because the idea wasn’t mine: it comes from Lord Krishna’s Cuisine by Yamuna Devi, a wonderful book of Indian vegetarian cuisine. But I had some technical problems with her recipe, and I’ve made a number of other changes based on my own preferences and what ingredients I’m likely to have available. Devi’s version called for pumpkin, for example (it was “golden pumpkin dal” originally), I use whole butter instead of ghee, and I make this far thicker than she does, like pea soup where hers is watery. I won’t claim that it’s Indian at this point; it’s just good, whatever it is.

    • 2 cups red lentils
    • 1 large sweet potato, peeled and cut into pieces about ½-inch thick
    • 1½ teaspoons turmeric
    • 3 quarter-sized pieces of fresh ginger, peeled and minced
    • 7 cups of water

    Place in a large pot. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer until everything is soft, about 20 minutes.

    Purée the soup off heat, or just mash it thoroughly if you don’t mind a few chunks.

    • a teaspoon of salt, and
    • the juice of a big juicy lemon, about 2 tablespoons’ worth.
    Stir into the puréed soup. Salt is to taste. Lemon juice is also to taste, but at this point, it will taste like far too much lemon. Have faith; we’re going to balance it in a minute.
    • 1 tablespoon cumin seeds
    • 1 tablespoon black or brown mustard seeds
    • ¾ teaspoon fenugreek seeds
    • 1 teaspoon dried chile flakes (or more or less, depending on your feelings about chiles)
    • 3 tablespoons sugar

    The last step is to “bloom” spices and caramelize sugar in butter.

    While the lentils and sweet potatoes are cooking, gather these in a small bowl.

    • 4 tablespoons butter

    Melt the butter in a small skillet over medium heat.

  1. Add the spices and sugar and cook, stirring occasionally, for a minute or two until the sugar browns (Watch it carefully; you don’t want the sugar to blacken.) Stir this mixture into the soup.

    • chopped cilantro

    Check the seasoning; add more salt and/or lemon if you like. Garnish with a bit of chopped cilantro and serve.

  2. Rice would be the traditional south-Indian accompaniment, but I think nothing goes better with this soup than a loaf of fresh-baked bread.