Lentils are one of the most important ingredients in Indian cooking for their health benefits and low cost. In fact, India is the world’s largest consumer of lentils in the world. This may be due to the fact that at least one dish containing lentil is served at every meal and the high percentage of vegetarians who live there. It is a good thing that India is also the world’s largest producer of these tiny gems.
Lentils in India
Lentil dishes are eaten all across India daily and appear on the menu as either a side dish or a main course. Having loved lentils for many years, I was stunned to learn that they are even served with breakfast! In South India, lentils are can simply be eaten with rice, and often eaten with chapati (a round wheat bread like a tortilla). After long days at work when my husband is too tired to cook anything that requires more than two steps, I have noticed that he seems to enjoy a simple dal and chapatti meal. Afterward, he seems calmer than when he arrived at home. I suspect that Indians consider lentils, in any form, to be comfort food.
Assorted dry lentils
Lentils are incorporated into every menu group in Indian cuisine. Some of the most popular recipes with lentils are:
Since the variety of options for this important source of protein in a highly vegetarians nation, it should not be a surprise to learn that there are literally hundreds and hundreds of recipe options available for lentils.
Characteristics of Lentils
Many varieties of lentils are available to keep the menu varied; each one is as different in its characteristics: color, size, texture and cooking speed. Lentils come in different colors from green, to red, to black and even orange. They vary in size as well. For example, French green lentils are tiny while chickpeas are rather large. Different varieties of red lentils vary in size. The small red beans are used in many Indian recipes including Chokapu Payar while the large ones are found in dishes such as in American chili. The small red beans take a long time to cook while the orange lentils are speedy. From firm and meaty chickpeas to smooth and creamy orange lentils, each has its own unique texture and purpose in Indian cuisine.
Forms of Lentils
Lentils are available whole (with the skin), whole without the skin, or split. The term dal is used as the name of many lentil dishes as well as the term for lentils that have been skinned and split. Lentils ground to a powder are used instead of flour instead of wheat. Besan (North India) or kadala podi (Kerala) is ground Bengal gram dal and is used in the batter coating for Bondas and Bjajia as well as a binding ingredient to hold various cutlets together. Many sprouted lentils are available in stores for the health conscious individual.
The best way to store lentils is to keep them in airtight containers. They will keep for many, many months until they are used.
Check out my Lentils page for more information on the different varieties of lentils in Indian cuisine.
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