In a sieve, rinse the lentils until the water runs clear, then drain and put into a deep, lidded saucepan. Add 2 ½ cups of cold water, bring to a boil over a medium to high heat, then cover with the lid and simmer gently for 10 to 15 minutes without stirring, until thoroughly cooked. Like pasta, lentils will be tender when cooked.
Meanwhile, put the oil into another deep, lidded saucepan on a medium heat. When it’s hot, add the peppercorns and cloves if you are using them. Stir-fry for around a minute, or until you can smell them, then add the onion. Cook for 8 to 10 minutes, until golden.
Add the garlic and ginger and stir-fry for a further 4 minutes before adding the chili powder, coriander, turmeric, and salt. Stir well, then add the canned tomatoes. If they’re whole, pour them out with one hand and crush them with your other hand to break them up before they hit the pan. Cover, turn the heat down, and simmer for around eight minutes.
The tomatoes should be looking darker and more paste-like now, with little tomato juice running from them. Add the lentils using a straining spoon, then pour in any remaining water they were boiling in, a little at a time, until you get a good consistency. For me, this is a fairly think dal, thick enough to be eaten from a plate with bread, but you may prefer yours to be more soupy.
Finally, cover the pan with the lid again and cook on a low heat for a further 10 minutes.
Taste and adjust the salt, chili, or consistency as you see fit, and serve with chapatis, homemade yogurt, and some garlic pickle, or fire-bellied garlic and chili chutney. Remember to watch out for the cloves and peppercorns.
Excerpted from Made in India by Meera Sodha. Photography by David Loftus. Published by Flatiron Books, New York.