This very fancy update of a standard dal goes all the way back to when my mom was a kid in India. She tried it at an aunt’s house, and fell in love with the simple addition of sweet, charred onions atop urad dal, a rich, chewy, almost risotto-like variety of lentil (you’re gonna love it, trust me). This dish inspires a unique level of mania in people who try it for the first time—the topping is familiar, but the dish still feels very unique. The onions turn dal, typically a simple, everyday staple, into something really luxurious. When caramelized onion dal makes an appearance at a Ritu dinner party, there are never any leftovers. Also, my mom loves to fake complain about how, whenever she makes this dal, people just pick the onions off the top. But you should totally feel free to do that. Like the cheese-coated top layer of a plate of nachos, the ghee-and-chile-doused caramelized onions are objectively the best part.
Editor’s note: This recipe comes to us from Indian(-ish): Recipes and Antics from a Modern American Family, as does Chickpea Flour Chickpeas and Spinach and Feta Cooked Like Saag Paneer.
Caramelized Onion Dal
For the dal
- 1 cup urad dal also known as split and husked black gram lentils or ivory white lentils; they’re white in color
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon ground turmeric
- 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice from about 1 lime
- For the onion
- ¼ cup olive oil
- 1 large yellow onion sliced into thin strips
For the seasoning (also known as chhonk)
- 2 tablespoons ghee or olive oil
- 1 tablespoon cumin seeds
- 4 dried red chiles
- ¼ teaspoon red chile powder
- ¼ teaspoon asafetida optional, but really great
- MAKE THE DAL: In a deep medium skillet over high heat, combine the lentils, salt, turmeric, and 2¼ cups water and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low, cover, and cook for 20 minutes. Then increase the heat to medium-high and cook for 3 to 7 minutes more, until the lentils are soft and dry and the water has mostly evaporated. Turn the heat off and let the dal sit for 10 minutes. (Alternatively, in an electric multi-cooker like an Instant Pot, combine the lentils, salt, turmeric, and 1½ cups water and cook on manual high pressure for 6 minutes, then allow the pressure to release naturally.) Add the lime juice and set aside.
- MEANWHILE, MAKE THE ONION: In a large skillet over medium-high heat, warm the oil. Once the oil begins to shimmer, add the onion slices and spread them in an even layer. Cook, stirring every few minutes to prevent burning, until caramelized and dark brown, 8 to 10 minutes. Top the cooked dal with the caramelized onion.
- MAKE THE SEASONING: In a small pan or butter warmer over medium-high heat, warm the ghee (or oil). Once the ghee melts (or the oil begins to shimmer), add the cumin seeds and cook until they start to sputter and brown, which should take seconds. Immediately remove the pan from the heat and mix in the dried chiles, red chile powder, and asafetida (if using).
- Top the dal and onions with the seasoning. Don’t stir! You’re going for a dramatic presentation.