Red lentils are a delicious fast cooking lentil with a slightly nutty taste. In its dried form, it has a lovely bright coral color that turns into a deep golden yellow color when cooked. Red lentils are often confused with skinned and split masoor dal, which have a similar color but are much smaller in shape and size. But they can be used interchangeably. Red lentils are usually available year round in most large Indian grocery or health food stores. But if you cannot find red lentils, feel free to substitute any lentil, bean or dal of your choice but do note that the cooking times may vary accordingly. Lentils are low in fat but are a great source of both protein and fiber.
Bengali cuisine is characterized by its heavy use of black mustard seeds in many of its recipes. The use of mustard seed oil and ground mustard seed paste provides a rich depth of flavor found only in Bengali food. Bengali cuisine also uses a very unique mixture of spices known as “panch phoron” (5 spice masala).
PANCH PHORON consists of equal parts of the following 5 whole spices:
Fenugreek seeds (methi)
Nigella seeds (black onion seeds or kalonji)
Black Mustard Seeds (rai)
Fennel Seeds (saunf)
Cumin seeds (jeera)
To make your own panch phoron masala: toast the spices in a dry skillet on medium high heat for a few minutes until fragrant and aromatic. Remove from the skillet, let cool and grind into a fine powder using a spice mill or clean coffee grinder.
Ready made panch phoron masala and mustard seed oil are both easily available at any Indian grocery store.
BENGALI RED LENTILS
1 cup red lentils, sorted and rinsed well
1 medium onion, finely minced
2 large garlic cloves, finely minced
1” piece of ginger, peeled and finely minced
2-3 small green Thai chilies, slit in half lengthwise (to taste)
1-2 bay leaves
1 tsp panch phoron masala
½ tsp turmeric
½ tsp ground cumin powder
pinch of asafetida (hing)
salt & pepper, to taste
3-4 dried red chilies (to taste)
4 tbsp mustard seed oil (you can substitute vegetable or canola oil)
juice of ½ lime
freshly chopped cilantro leaves for garnish
In a small size soup or stock pot, add the red lentils along with the turmeric, bay leaves and enough water to cover. Let simmer on low until the lentils are fully cooked but not soft and mushy. This may take up to 20-25 minutes or longer.
In a deep skillet on medium high heat, add 2 tbsp of the oil. When hot, add the onions and let cook until golden brown. This may take up to 5-6 minutes. Add the ginger, garlic, green chilies and ground cumin powder. Stir and let cook for 2-3 minutes and then add the tomatoes, salt and pepper. Let cook until the tomatoes have softened completely (about 7-8 minutes). Add the onion and tomato mixture to the cooked red lentils. Add the lime juice and stir well to combine all of the ingredients together.
In the same deep skillet on medium high heat, add the remaining 2 tbsp of oil. When hot, carefully add the panch phoron and allow the black mustard seeds to splatter. When the splattering subsides, add the dried red chilies and asafetida. Now carefully pour or spoon this hot oil mixture over the cooked lentils. Garnish with freshly chopped cilantro leaves and serve with fresh warm rotis and fragrant Basmati rice.