If you’re anything like we were a short time ago, you know of dal and have maybe ordered it a few times but you still aren’t 100% on what exactly it is. We were recently enlightened by the good folk at the British Dal Festival – the inaugural edition of which is due to take place in Bristol from 19–25 March, celebrating the diversity of dal and similar dishes from around the world, and highlighting their cultural richness, flavour, affordability plus their contribution to health, nutrition and environmental sustainability.

So dal is essentially a stew or soup made of pulses – split or whole – such as lentils, beans, peas or other dried legume seeds. Comforting and economical, dal is an important part of dinner time in Indian subcontinental cultures – generally eaten every day, with children often taught to tuck into their dal before touching anything else on their plate.

There are countless classic dals, often named for their main pulse ingredient, such as chana dal, meaning split black chickpeas – other names describe other ingredients or characteristics of the dish. Cuisines around the world have similar, somewhat equivalent traditional dishes, from the refried beans of Mexico and fava dips of Greece to Britain’s pease pudding and mushy peas.

Dal makhani recipe: serves 4

Dal makhani is a rich Punjabi dal of urad gram (also known as whole urad beans or black lentils) and rajma (red kidney beans), rather than the split lentils or peas used for most dals. The name literally means ‘buttery dal’.


  • 1/2 cup (100g) urad gram (whole urad beans/black lentils)
  • 2 tbsp (25g) rajma (whole red kidney beans)
  • Salt to taste
  • 1 tsp red chilli powder
  • 2 inches ginger, chopped
  • 3 tbsp butter
  • 1 tbsp oil
  • 1 tsp cumin seeds
  • 6 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 2 green chillies, split
  • 2 medium tomatoes
  • 1 tsp garam masala powder


  • Pick, wash and soak the pulses (urad gram and rajma) overnight in three cups of water. Drain.
  • Place the pulses in a large pan with three cups of water with salt and half the red chilli powder. Cover and bring to the boil, allow to boil vigorously for 10 minutes, then reduce the heat and simmer for a further 30 minutes or until tender. (If using a pressure cooker, bring to full pressure and cook for 10 minutes, then turn off the heat and leave to cool and return to normal pressure.)
  • Heat the butter and oil in pan. Add cumin seeds. When they begin to change colour, add the ginger, garlic and onion and sauté until golden.

This recipe was originally published by pulses.org to mark the United Nations International Year of Pulses 2016.

Classic mushy peas: makes 10 generous portions

Bristol food writer Jenny Chandler, UN FAO special ambassador for pulses, has also shared a pulse-based recipe for a British classic. Best known as an accompaniment to fish and chips, mushy peas have much more to offer – read on for tips on achieving that rich green hue without food colouring.


  • 500g dried marrowfat peas – Hodmedod’s Kabuki variety works especially well
  • 1-2 tsp salt
  • 3-4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil (or 50g butter)
  • 250g fresh spinach (optional for extra-green mushy peas)


  1. Soak the peas in plenty of water overnight (or for 12 hours), remembering to use a large pan/bowl as the peas will double in size at least.
  2. Drain off the soaking water and then place in a large plan with enough fresh water to cover by about 5cm. You may need to top up the pea water during cooking but you certainly don’t want to have to drain any of this nutrient-rich juice away later.
  3. Bring the pan up to a boil, cover and then simmer for anything between 40 minutes and an hour (if you have hard water, filtering can help reduce the cooking time). Check the peas from time to time, they may require a splash more water and once they begin to burst and collapse its a good idea to stir the pan every few minutes to prevent any sticking.
  4. The final texture of your peas is up to you: I like quite a thick mush and so I bubble off any extra moisture but you may finish up by adding more water to reach your perfect consistency.
  5. Now’s the time to season with salt and, for an especially luscious creamy taste, some fat: either butter or extra virgin oil.
  6. If you’re eating your peas later you will find that they thicken up and you may need to add a little more liquid as you reheat them.

Optional steps for extra-green mushy peas

  1. Wash the spinach thoroughly and remove any tough or particularly stringy stalks.
  2. Squash the leaves into a saucepan with a well fitting lid, there will be no need for any extra water if your leaves are still damp from washing (if using ready-washed spinach just add 2 tablespoons of water to the pan). Place the pan over a medium heat and cook for about 5 minutes, until the spinach has collapsed and turned a fabulously deep green.
  3. Blitz the spinach to a purée using a hand-held or jug blender – you want it to be really smooth otherwise your peas will be flecked with spots rather than beautifully green.
  4. Stir the spinach purée into your cooked mushy peas just before serving to keep the really vibrant green.

This recipe was created by Jenny Chandler for Hodmedod.