LeftyProf’s Moong Dal with Tomato and Ginger

This dish was served to Joe and me by our good friend, culinary collaborator and desi political blogger LeftyProf.  It’s South Indian comfort food: warming, filling, simple and healthy. 

 After a week without food (and yes, it really is Crohn’s, with a possible but yet-to-be-confirmed side of celiac disease), I was in need of exactly this dish… there’s a reason they call it comfort food, you know?

 So.  Here’s what you do, and LP, please correct me if I’ve gotten anything wrong.  Your ingredients:

Moong Dal

Three tomatoes, diced

Four inches of ginger, peeled and jullienned as fine and thin as you can get it

One large onion or two small onions finely sliced in half-moons

Four or five small green chillies chopped finely

Boil moong dal, as much as you want to make, in a large pot with plenty of water, for 30-40 minutes. 

Slice one large onion (or two small ones) into half-moons.  Sweet onions are good for this dish.  Brown them ever so slightly in the bottom of a second pan.  (Do not throw the onions into the pot of dal, like Joe did.)  As soon as the onions get a hint of brown on them, throw in the ginger and give it a few minutes in the pan.  Add the tomatoes and green chillies, and cook until the tomatoes start to get soft. 

 Empty the pan of vegetables into the pot of dal and mix.  Salt to taste (you can also do this on the plate).  Serve with rice or roti. 

As our host demonstrated to us, you can also add a kick by serving raw whole green chillies with this.  Pick thin ones, and bite off the very tip, then follow it with a bite of dal.  I couldn’t try it without risking Crohn-ly unpleasantness, but the guys tell me that this method gives you an initial rush of heat from the pepper that’s immediately cut by the dal, so that the heat achieves a pleasant balance over the course of the meal.  Joe liked this so much that I think he’ll be eating green chillies with his spaghetti and meatballs soon.

You’ll notice that I don’t give exact  measurements on this recipe, or on anything I know by heart.  In the words of the chef: ‘We don’t measure, are you fucking kidding me?’   It’s the Indian version of the motto my college friends Nancy and Maribel used to shout across the dorm: ‘Mexicans don’t measure!’ 

Other ethnic groups who do not, I am told, measure: African-Americans, Ghanians, North Carolinians, Texans, Taiwanese, Afghans, and the French.  In fact, I’d wager that anyone who cooks by heart scorns the little metal spoons– I know I do when I’m making my grammy’s dishes.  Grammy measures, but her units of measurement are dabs of dough and pinches of salt.  But so many of the American cooks I know are almost obsessive about measurement– is it a teaspoon of salt, or a half a teaspoon?

I think this is an expression of caution and unfamiliarity.  When I’m following one of Jaffrey’s recipes, lord knows I’m the queen of the little metal spoons, carefully counting out my teaspoons and tablespoons.  But I’ve found, over the course of writing this blog, that as my comfort level increases and I become more confident in the kitchen, I’m more and more content to leave the little metal spoons in their drawer.  It’s about whether you own the dish, or the dish owns you.  I think there’s something to be said for following recipes exactly the first time around, especially if you are unfamiliar with the cuisine from which you’re cooking.  Once you start to get the hang of it, though, you can improvise, edit, and get a feel for what you’re trying to accomplish– and the spoons become irrelevant.  Maybe when I’ve been making Indian food as long as LeftyProf has, I’ll forsake them entirely.

In the meantime, though, I’ll try to relax a little more in the kitchen, and remember that no one has a monopoly on the ‘correct’ recipe– and it’s improvisation and experimentation that evolve into the regional and cultural variations that make food exciting.  After all, who’d want to live in a world where you can’t try both Texan and Carolinian barbecue?

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23 Responses to “LeftyProf’s Moong Dal with Tomato and Ginger”

  1. Chaps Says:

    What the heck is mong dal?

    And if you tried carolinin bbq there is no need to try tex!


  2. therealpotato Says:

    Hi Uncle Tim! Moong dal is yellow lentils– very tasty and healthy.

    Oh man, after I wrote that last bit about Carolina BBQ I got sooo hungry for it… my dad made some in FL a few weeks ago. (Yes, he has the Backswamp recipe…)

  3. leftyprof Says:

    Moong dal: I don’t think it is technically a lentil–I think it is considered a bean, if I’m not mistaken. Anyway, you get three varieties in Indian stores:
    1. Whole moong, or moong sabut. This is the whole bean, with its green skin.
    2. Split moong. This is, well, split, but with the green skin still intact.
    3. Yellow moong. Split, without the skin, and it looks yellow.

    Green moong is also very tasty but takes longer to cook.

    Anyway, one thing you forgot in the recipe was that at the very end, I added a tadka or cumin seeds in ghee.

    tadka = heat ghee, add cumin seeds, wait for sizzle-shizzle, then add to dal. Yum.

  4. therealpotato Says:

    Yummy… fa shizzle.

    Cumin seeds! I told Joe there were cumin seeds and he insisted I was confusing the dal with the rice. Hah.

    *adopts Homer Simpson face*
    mmm… tadka… argarggh.

  5. therealpotato Says:

    oh yeah.

    From an article about Senegalese stew in today’s New York Times:

    “In Senegal, we never measure,” Ms. N’doye said, as she reached deep into a large can of tomato paste and pulled from it a fistful of thick red purée, which she massaged into a small bowl of warm water.

  6. MasalaChai Says:

    My mom cooks by heart because she’s got skills….these things can’t be taught.

    Madhur Jaffrey’s recipes are overly bland and catered towards westerners. I can pretty much assume from reading your blog that your food can not touch the deliciousness of authentic home cooked indian food. Maybe you should leave it to the experts?

  7. therealpotato Says:

    If you actually read the post, MasalaChai, you’ll see that this recipe was given to me by a friend from Bangalore (who agrees with your opinion of Madhur Jaffrey). I don’t pretend that my food can touch the experts– but it’s called learning, and I happen to think it’s worth doing. I’ve improved since I started the blog, and I’ve had some damn tasty meals that are far healthier than anything from my own culture.

    What a crappy thing to say to someone– do you generally spend your time leaving nasty comments on people’s blogs?

  8. MasalaChai Says:

    No but I do make sure and point out when white people try to pretend that they are experts on Indian culture, a trend that is unfortunately on the rise these days.

  9. MasalaChai Says:

    And your comment also mirrors something else I see: western (read:white) people who start with a small interest in India and then instantly start trying to convince everyone (including actual Indians) how much better everything is from India.

    My parents are doctors, from India. They know that Indians have some of the highest rates of hypertension and heart disease in the world, primarily from our diets. This is partly because of a higher emphasis on artifical preservatives, but also because Indians have not always placed a proper value on nutrition, even in the context of a traditional south indian vegetarian diet. A healthy american diet is much more in line with medical science confirms is best for the body.

    So yeah, what I’m saying is that you have no idea what you’re talking about.

  10. therealpotato Says:


    On your first point: I’ve made every effort on this blog to make it clear that I in no way consider myself an expert on anything– the point of the blog is that I’m an amateur cook trying to find new and interesting ways to eat well. I don’t put myself out there as an expert, and if I did you’d have every right to be annoyed.

    Second, I didn’t know what a ‘healthy American diet’ was growing up, and I know few Americans who do. I was diagnosed in 2003 with celiac disease and lived gluten-free for two years before I found out I had Crohn’s disease. Trying to live gluten-free on an American diet, especially when you’re broke, is next to impossible, so I began trying to learn from cultures with rice- and corn-based diets. Certainly not all Indian food is healthy (and I didn’t make that claim) but it’s a hell of a lot easier to find wheat-free food that’s nourishing and cheap. So yes, I personally have eaten healthier food since I began learning to cook Indian recipes. However, I’m aware of the problem you outline– it’s one that’s becoming common in many countries where the food supply is industrializing rapidly, and you’re absolutely right to bring it up.

    I don’t blame you for being frustrated with what you perceive as my Orientalism; one of the biggest issues I’ve struggled with in writing this blog (as well as in my friendships with the Indians and Indian-Americans in my life) is whether and how it’s possible for a white person to engage with Indian culture without being Orientalist. I don’t pretend to have the answer to that question– all I can say is that I do my best, and when someone does criticize me on that level I take it very seriously and change my behavior if they convince me it’s warranted. Some desi folks think that it’s not possible at all, and that no white Americans should ever think about, learn about or attempt to engage with Indian culture at all. You seem to be in that camp. I happen to think that’s crap– desis are a fast-growing and influential immigrant group in the US, and cultural interchange is only going to increase. If you have to deal with white Americans, would you prefer someone who tries to learn and sometimes makes mistakes, or someone who can’t find Asia on a map and doesn’t care to learn?

    If you’d like to engage in a discussion on that topic, instead of making assumptions about me and/or dismissing my entire blog (which, by the way, doesn’t focus solely on Indian food by any means) with angry generalizations, I’d be happy to do so.

  11. MasalaChai Says:

    OK fair enough. I was overly hostile and I apologize.

    But you did correctly identify your perceived Orientalism as my main source of hostility. My question is always, Why? Why do you feel this need to “engage” with Indian culture?

    I am an American. I enjoy Mexican food, French Literature, German philosophers and African-American hip-hop groups. But I enjoy these things on their own merits. I don’t assume because I like tacos, I should also try and learn everything about Mexican migrant workers. I also don’t turn around and dress in traditional mexican clothese, dance salsa and basically pretend to be Mexican.

    I have no problem with people who love Indian food, Salman Rushdie, Bollywood or anything else. Enjoy it, love it, learn it. My problem is when outsiders try to take those things, water them down and then purport to be cultural ambassadors for our culture. It is nauseating, and it’s what Americans have been doing for decades: see popular american depictions of mexican, american or irish culture for examples. That is exactly what we as Indians want to avoid. Assimiliation is over. If you come in the spirit of learning and appreciation, then you are welcome. Appropriation and exploitation are not. and broad generalizations about Indian, Indians and the way we are, our spirituality etc. (which are common, though not on your blog) are especially reviled.

    Hope this makes me easier to understand.

  12. MasalaChai Says:

    And let me add that I object to your use of the term desi as well. i am not a desi. I am a south indian american. I do not speak Hindi and desi is not part of my culture. Maybe that is an example of you taking things too far in your attempts to show off your understanding.

  13. MasalaChai Says:

    And finally, I lived my whole life with white people who knew nothing about India. I preferred it. They made no assumptions about me or what I am like. To them I’m just a person, an american, albeit one with brown skin.

    The problems I have is when I encounter people like you, with some rudimentary knowledge of Indian culture. They always do one of two things: 1. attempt to talk to endlessly about some unremarkable aspect of our culture that they admire and I find tedious to discuss with westerners or 2. they try to “out-indian” me by showing off some obscure knowledge of some topic I have no interest in. Both are turn offs, and I certainly prefer good old american indifference to some pretentious pasty dude who loves talking about the terrible “curry” he makes or how much he loves reading his watered down translation of the Gita.

  14. therealpotato Says:


    For me, the ‘why’ always comes down to the personal. Some of my very close friends, including a guy I dated, are part of the Indian diaspora and so my interest began from our political and cultural conversations. From there, as a language professional I was offered the opportunity to take a Tamil class. I now work with a translation agency in a position that requires me to learn the ins and outs of how diasporic communities grow and change, where languages are spoken, by whom and how, etc.

    I’m not pretending to be Indian or purporting to be a cultural ambassador– I’m from Pittsburgh, OK? But the questions arise– what should I wear to an Indian wedding? Is it OK to like bhangra? etc. and there are no simple answers. I ask four people and get four answers.

    You’ll find some posts on Chinese culture as well– does that bother you as well?

    As for ‘desi’– I know some South Indian folks who use it on a regular basis and don’t find it problematic, but again, ask four people, get four answers.

  15. MasalaChai Says:

    The thing is, I have dated white girls (and most of the other races). Are they interested in my culture? Some are, some aren’t. but I don’t really care. What I don’t want is for them to think because they are dating ME that they somehow need to watch Bollywood movies. That is dehumanizing to say the least. Like I said, if you like elements of another culture, like the food or music, that is perfectly normal. What is weird is when you try to totally adopt it as your culture. Which it isn’t. And in doing so, you distort it. which is what usually happens.

    Your job is your job, and it sounds interesting. Part of my frustration is that someone like you has that job, when someone like me should have it. I have been speaking Tamil my whole life. But I can’t get a job translating because they prefer white people. Same thing when I try to write about South Asia for publications. They always assign a white person, because us brown folk are baised and can’t be trusted.

    As for your questions- you should wear the same thing to an Indian wedding that you would wear to a western one. I hear this question all the time, and what it usually means is “ooh look at how pretty the bride is in that exotic get up. do I get to wear one too and pretend to be an indian princess?” I know at my wedding, there will be no white people in saris, which is true for most of the weddings I have been to. It’s like wearing a sombrero to a mexican party to fit in, most people will smile and be polite but rest assured we always laugh at the white girls in their poorly fitting salwars when they are not arround.

    Posts on Chinese culture don’t matter to me, but I bet my chinese colleague next door wouldn’t agree. (The link doesn’t work, BTW) Still I suspect he wouldn’t object as much, because the Chinese have pretty much allowed themselves to be doormats in this country since arriving. Which is why asian guys are a running joke in American popular culture, and Asian women are exotified and dehumanized as subservient sex kittens. Again, this is what we are trying to avoid.

    As for the desi question, you are right, it differs. In the right crowd, I might even use it myself to describe others. But you can’t use it to describe me, because you would be incorrect. And again, you are making that common mistake; your south indian and other indian friends are your friends, and more likely to be patient and understanding about your cultural confusion and questions. But why should people like me tolerate them? I would not call a black man “nigga” just because my black friends do it. I wouldn’t call my italian friend paisan, or my mexican friend amigo. It’s belittling and ingenuine. So don’t call me desi. If you friends don’t mind, call them desis. But you shouldn’t assume because you know one brown person, the same rules apply for all.

  16. Amardeep Says:

    Real Potato,

    I’m sorry to say that you are stuck arguing with an identity obsessed know-nothing. “Masala Chai” has some kind of chip on his shoulder — and in some ways reminds me of certain commenters we’ve had on Sepia Mutiny who’ve tongue-lashed us periodically as “sell outs.”

    His own position doesn’t really make sense. If he’s an Indian who describes himself as an American (2nd generation/ABD), his values are largely American, as are his tastes in music — and even food. (He likes Tacos) And yet, because of his ancestry, he feels some sort of proprietary ownership over Indian culture. An Indian living India would wonder what he’s on about.

    Don’t let this person stress you out — keep doing what you’re doing. Posting a recipe for Baingan Bhartha, and having an enthusiasm more generally for Desi food, is not orientalist in the bad sense, and only a truly twisted interpretation (what, is making your friends a nice meal a form of colonialist exploitation?) could lead anyone to make that claim.

  17. therealpotato Says:

    Oh, that makes a lot more sense… he DOES sound like certain SM trolls.

  18. MasalaChai Says:

    I would argue the real problem is people like Amardeep, who would rather criticize other indians than ever produce a thoughful critique of western media depictions of India

  19. therealpotato Says:

    Please feel free to post a link to your thoughtful critique of western media depictions of India.

  20. therealpotato Says:

    By the way, you clearly haven’t read Amardeep’s blog.

  21. MasalaChai Says:

    I have several. They are published under my real name so I can’t send the link here. In fact I am a professional journalist, and my personal thoughts on the media are probably damaging to my career, so I am forced to keep them to myself.

  22. therealpotato Says:

    Shouldn’t you be publishing those thoughts pseudonymously, then? If you have to keep them to yourself, why are you publishing them at all? That doesn’t make sense.

  23. leftyprof Says:

    Plenty of masala, very little chai.

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