lentils 101

Lentils are a type of pulse or legume. Although these terms are used interchangeably, they are not technically the same. Leguminous plants are a family of flowering plants having pods (or legumes) as fruits and root nodules enabling storage of nitrogen-rich material. These include not just lentils, but also peas, beans, peanuts and soy for example. The FAO uses the term ‘pulse’ specifically for crops harvested solely for the dry seed. And finally, since I’ll use it below, Daal is an Indian term referring to both raw and cooked lentils/legumes.

Anyhow, lentils have been used in most food cultures for a really long time. They have a high protein content and are especially important for vegetarians or vegans. When I was a child, I could only distinguish between kaali daal and peeli daal i.e. yellow or black daal based on how light or dark the end-product was! Once I started cooking, I was baffled by the different varieties of daals and it took me a while to learn their names and figure out the differences between them! For those of you still struggling with your lentils, here’s a quick refresher course :). The general rule for cooking daal is that the thicker, and the bigger it is, the more time it’ll take to cook.

  1. URAD DAAL: There are 3 kinds: whole, split-with skin and split-without skin. Whole urad is black in color and it’s the main ingredient in Daal Makhni. It’s very hard and requires overnight soaking like kidney beans (rajma) or chickpeas (chana), even if you are using a pressure cooker. Split urad with skin is less tough and can be cooked without long periods of soaking. It’s black and white in color, due to the dark skin and lighter interior. Split urad with no skin is white in color and has a slightly gluey consistency when cooked. It is used most commonly in making idli, dosa, vada, uttapam etc. You’ll also see it being used in tadka or tempering for many South Indian and Gujarati recipes.
  2. MOONG DAAL: Just like urad, there are 3 kinds: whole, split-with skin and split-without skin. Whole moong is deep green in color and about the same size as whole urad. It is often used to make sprouts. Split, with skin moong is green and white and can be used to make regular daal. Split moong without skin is pale yellow in color and is quite small. It’s one of the lightest lentils and very often used to make khichdi. One can also use it for moong daal ka halwa and vadiyaan among other things.
  3. ARHAR/TOOR DAAL: This daal is also yellow in color, but it’s darker and bigger than yellow moong daal. It is very popular in Uttar Pradesh to make regular daal and khichdi. South Indians use it to make sambaar. I have noticed that some grocery stores carry an oily version of arhar daal, which is nothing but plain arhar treated with oil to prolong its shelf life. 
  4. MOTH/MATKI DAAL: This daal is usually available whole and has a thin and long shape. It has a greenish-brown color and is primarily used to make sprouts. It is also used in many savory mixtures.
  5. CHANA DAAL: Chana daal is made from black gram by splitting and removing the skin. It is yellow in color and slightly bigger and more round than arhar daal. Very popular in Haryana and Punjab. Also used in tadka along with white urad in South Indian and Gujarati recipes.
  6. MASOOR DAAL: This is the most commonly used lentil in the US. There are 2 kinds: whole and split-without-skin. Whole masoor is brownish in color and has a flat shape and used for most lentil soups. Split masoor without skin is orange in color and makes a wonderful light-soupy daal like yellow moong. Both kinds of masoor can be cooked very quickly. The orange masoor is also known as daal malka.

I am sure there are many more varieties of lentils that I have not included, but these are the most commonly used ones.

Photo Credits: I was out of split moong daals (yellow and green) at home, so their pictures have been downloaded from the internet.

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