Lentils, known as dal in India, are an integral part of Indian cuisine and culture. They are a staple food across the Indian subcontinent and are used in a variety of dishes from soups and stews to curries and snacks. On an Indian menu, you will typically find lentils listed in the following ways:
Types of Lentils
There are many varieties of lentils used in Indian cooking. Some of the most common types you may see on a menu include:
- Masoor dal – Red lentils that are skinned and split. They cook quickly and are frequently used in soups and stews.
- Chana dal – Split chickpeas that have a nutty flavor. They hold their shape well when cooked.
- Urad dal – Black lentils that are skinned and split. They have a soft, mushy texture.
- Moong dal – Green or yellow split mung beans. They are small and cook quickly.
- Toor dal – Split pigeon peas that have a rich, earthy flavor.
Other varieties like brown lentils (sabut masoor), whole mung beans (whole moong), and black gram lentils (urad dal) may also be used.
Lentil Dishes and Preparations
Lentils are cooked in a wide array of Indian dishes:
- Dal – Lentils simmered in a seasoned broth and often finished with tadka (tempering). Some examples are dal makhani and chana dal.
- Sambar – A South Indian lentil stew made with toor dal and vegetables.
- Dhokla – Savory steamed cakes from Gujarat made with a batter of split chickpeas.
- Papadum – Crispy wafer-thin discs made from lentil flour.
- Vada/Vadi – Fried fritters, like medu vada, usually made from lentil flours.
- Idli – Steamed cakes from rice and lentils, often served with sambar.
- Dosa – Fermented crepes made with lentil and rice batters.
In addition, lentils are used as:
- Stuffing fillings for dosa, uttapam, parathas
- Thickeners for curries and stews
- Binders in snacks like tikki and cutlets
- Mix-ins for rice dishes like khichdi
Common Names and Descriptions
Here are some of the common names for lentil dishes you may encounter on Indian menus:
|Dal Makhani||Black lentils and kidney beans in creamy tomato gravy|
|Chana Masala||Chickpeas in onion-tomato masala|
|Palak Dal||Split red lentils cooked with spinach|
|Sambar||South Indian lentil and vegetable stew|
|Rasam||Spicy South Indian lentil soup|
|Gujarati Kadhi||Yogurt-based curry made with chickpea flour|
|Dhokla||Savory steamed chickpea flour cakes|
|Medu Vada||Crispy fried lentil fritters|
|Misal Pav||Spicy lentil curry served with bread rolls|
|Sprouted Moong Salad||Salad made with sprouted mung beans|
Lentils as Part of a Meal
Lentil dishes are often eaten as part of a larger Indian meal. Some typical ways lentils may be served in a multi-course meal include:
- As the main curry dish along with rice or Indian bread
- As a side dish accompanying a meat curry
- As a soup or appetizer course before the main meal
- Served over rice as khichdi, a comforting one-pot meal
- Stuffed into breads like paratha, kachori or dosa
- Served with puffed fried bread like puri or bhatura
- Paired with yogurt-based raita or chutneys as part of a thali meal
Here are some of the key nutrients lentils provide:
- High in protein – Great for vegetarians who don’t eat meat
- High in fiber – Improves digestion and heart health
- High in folate – Important for pregnant women
- Iron – Help prevent anemia and boost energy
- Magnesium and potassium – For muscle function and managing blood pressure
Lentils are low in fat and have virtually no cholesterol. They are packed with antioxidants and phytochemicals that can reduce inflammation. Their high fiber content helps regulate blood sugar levels. Overall, incorporating more lentils into your diet can boost immunity, aid weight loss, and reduce disease risk.
Cost of Lentil Dishes
Compared to meat and seafood curries, lentil dishes are generally lower priced items on Indian menus. The average cost of popular lentil dishes in Indian restaurants in the US include:
|Dal Makhani||$8 – $12|
|Chana Masala||$6 – $10|
|Palak Dal||$7 – $11|
|Sambar||$5 – $8|
|Rasam||$4 – $7|
|Gujarati Kadhi||$6 – $9|
|Dhokla (appetizer portion)||$5 – $8|
|Medu Vada (appetizer portion)||$4 – $7|
|Misal Pav||$7 – $10|
While prices vary by restaurant, lentil dishes tend to range from $5 to $12 per portion on average. They provide good value for money given their nutrition and satiety.
Pairing Lentils with Other Dishes
Here are some suggested ways to pair lentil items with other dishes on an Indian menu:
- Dal makhani goes well with naan, paratha or jeera rice
- Chana masala pairs nicely with poori, bhatura or rasmalai
- Sambar and rasam work well with dosa, idli, vada
- Gujarati kadhi complements farsan snacks like dhokla, khakhra
- Medu vada pairs nicely with coconut or coriander chutney
- Misal pav goes great with papadum and boondi raita
Playing with different flavor, texture and temperature contrasts can make for an exciting Indian meal featuring lentils.
Common Allergies and Restrictions
When ordering lentil dishes, keep the following dietary restrictions in mind:
- Gluten-free – Most lentils are naturally gluten-free. Watch out for dishes with wheat-based thickeners.
- Vegan – Dal makhani and dishes with dairy should be avoided. Stick to vegetable-based dishes.
- Nut allergies – Some lentil dishes like dal tadka are finished with chopped nuts. Request for them to be omitted.
- FODMAPs – Certain lentils like red split lentils are higher in FODMAPs, a carbohydrate that may cause gut issues for some.
Ensure lentil dishes don’t include ingredients you want to avoid. Inform your server of dietary needs.
Indian Lentil Dishes Around the World
The popularity of Indian cuisine has led lentil dishes to be adapted globally. Some examples include:
- Dal makhani burrito – Mexico, stuffing black dal in a wheat tortilla with rice and peppers
- Chana masala pasta – Italy, chickpeas in tomato sauce tossed with penne
- Lentil soup – Middle East, spiced red lentil soup thickened with tahini
- Dhokla tacos – USA, chickpea flour cakes in crunchy taco shells
- Dal dip – Australia, blended lentils for dipping raw vegetables
Lentils are versatile beans that have been embraced by many food cultures globally.
Lentils are an integral part of Indian cuisine due to their incredible nutrition, versatility, affordability and suitability for various dietary needs. On Indian menus, lentils are found in appetizers, curries, stews, soups, snacks and more. Popular dishes include dals, dhokla, rasam, sambar and chana masala. Lentils can be paired with rice, breads, vegetables, yogurt, chutneys and other accompaniments. With their diversity, flavor, and nutrition, lentils will likely remain essential to Indian dining for generations to come.