Gujarati-style sweet and sour dal

20 September 2018

Gujarati-style sweet and sour dal

I have a default curry spicing that I lazily use when I need something quickly and I have no inventive energy left after a hard day. Turmeric. Cumin. Coriander. Chilli. Some Garam Masala mixed in at the end. It’s fine, but it’s one dimensional. One step removed from cooking a ready meal.

That isn’t my aspiration, though. I’d love to fully understand the richness of Indian cooking, and its fantastic regional variations. So, in that spirit, I thought I would explore one of the distinctive approaches to cooking a dal associated with the Gujarati region.

In particular, dishes that use jaggery and kokum to produce a sweet and sour finish to the dish. My previous experience of jaggery was simply to avoid it when trying to get palm sugar for the Vietnamese caramel chicken recipe. And I’d never come across kokum - available dried - which is a sour tasting fruit from that region of India. One other aspect commonly found in this style of dish is the spice asafoetida. Something else I’d never used before. Oh, and the addition of raw peanuts for some crunch. Not as easy to find in UK supermarkets as you might think, but Norwich market was able to come to the rescue.

My research also identified a different type of lentil to the ones I’d used for a dal before - toor dal, otherwise known as split pigeon peas. Apparently a very common ingredient in India, but completely absent from the supermarkets of the UK. They're quite similar (but not identical) to standard yellow split peas, so if you don't feel the need for painful authenticity, I would expect you could substitute without losing a huge amount.

We live in a time when all of these things can be bought online if you can’t source them locally, so I gathered my ingredients together, reviewed some of the variations I could find of how to approach this dish, and settled on what I was going to do.

One thing I decided I would do differently - most of these Gujarati style dals were more liquid than the standard. I decided it wouldn’t be a huge issue if I flouted that convention. No doubt I was wrong to do so.

But in any case, I loved the outcome. I was worried early on when the addition of the kokum gave the whole a distinctively unpleasant greenish hue, but this settled out as the cook continued. And what I had at the end was a multi-level of flavour and a dal that was different to any other I’d had. I now have plenty of more kokum, jaggery and toor dal, so will be trying another variation on the theme soon.

Gujarati-style sweet and sour dal

Of course, you can substitute the jaggery with soft brown sugar, and the kokum with lemon juice or a suitable vinegar. But it won’t be the same flavours, so it’s worth trying it with the original ingredients to get some sense of the flavour profile you’re dealing with.

Serves: 2

100g split pigeon peas / toor / tuvar dal
1 piece fresh ginger, peeled
1 large tomato
1 handful raw peanuts
1 tablespoon jaggery, chopped
7 dried kokum fruits
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 pinch dried chilli flakes
1 tablespoon garam masala
Vegetable oil
1 pinch asafoetida
Half teaspoon mustard seeds
Half teaspoon cumin seeds
1 stick cinnamon
2 cloves



Rinse the lentils in running water, until the water runs completely clear.

Quarter the tomato and chop the ginger into medium pieces. Add to a blender along with the dried kokum and blend to a paste. 

Put the toor dal in 500ml of cold water and bring to the simmer. Add the paste to the lentils and allow them to cook until the lentils are soft - about 30 minutes. As they cook, remove any froth than forms on the top.

Add the peanuts, jaggery, turmeric, crushed chilli, garam masala and some salt and continue to simmer gently.

Heat the oil in a small saucepan and add the asafoetida, the cumin and mustard seeds, the cloves and the cinnamon and fry for a few seconds over a low heat until the seeds begin to pop. Then pour the whole spices into the lentils and simmer for a further ten minutes or so. Add some additional water if you want it to be a little looser, and serve.

Food waste

The dried kokum will keep in a sealed bag for a long time, as will the jaggery. But, still, identify when you’ll next use them because unless you plan to, it’s not something that will naturally occur to you I’m betting. Otherwise, this is pretty much a waste-free recipe.