Cabbage Dal

When you see that the main ingredients are cabbage and yellow split peas, you may be tempted to bypass this dish. Don’t! It’s much tastier than it sounds.

This recipe is one I put together on the basis of a cabbage sambal that came along with meals at the Gulshan Indian restaurant in New York City that I used to go to when I was at NYU. Gulshan was on 2nd Ave., just off of Indian Restaurant Row, the strip of 6th St. down from St. Mark’s Place that houses an entire block of almost nothing but Indian restaurants. Much to my dismay, Gulshan was gone when Michael and I went to NYC for our honeymoon – a convenience store (run by Indians) had replaced it. Yillah lamented that now she had to find somewhere else for her wedding reception.

Gulshan had an early bird special that included soup, a choice of entrees, and dessert. The soup was always a phenomenal sweet-sour soup that I have never successfully replicated. They called it mulligatawny, but there’s a vast variety of different recipes parading around under that name. It had chilies and tomatoes, I’m sure, but there may have also been carrots, and there was always a whole cilantro leaf or two floating in it as a garnish. Even the cilantro I use somehow never tastes as bright and aromatic as it did at Gulshan. Some soups I’ve made that have included apple have gotten close to the right balance, but for now I’ve given up on that recipe. The dessert was the best kheer I’ve ever had – very simple milky rice pudding – and again, though I’ve made numerous attempts and eaten lots of kheer other places, I’ve never found one I liked as well.

Anyway, back to the cabbage. It came as a relish along with meals at Gulshan, and I often ate it late in the meal, after everything else. It’s not at all a flashy dish – no bright colors, chunks of panir, or creamy sauces to make it stand out – but it’s very satisfying, especially if you love cabbage like I do. The Gulshan version didn’t have quite as much dal in it as this does, but the dal makes it less of a relish and more of something to serve over rice or dip pieces of buttery flatbread into.

1 T. oil
3 T. butter (I know that’s a lot, but this makes a big potful, so it’s spread out over quite a ways – and it’s essential to the flavor of the dish.)

1 large onion, chopped
1 t. cumin seeds
1 t. brown mustard seeds
3 cloves garlic, minced

1 bay leaf
4 whole cloves
1 1-in stick cinnamon (trust me on this – I know cinnamon + cabbage does not sound = delicious)
4 whole small dried chilies (I used Indian ones – no variety specified on the package – that are slender and about 4 inches long.)

2 c. yellow split peas (toovar dal), soaked overnight if you have the chance (it’ll speed things up)
1 medium head cabbage, washed, core removed, cut into about 1-in. by 1-in. pieces
salt to taste

Heat the oil and butter together in a large, deep stew or stockpot. When they are hot and the butter is beginning to smell a little toasty, drop in the onion and fry for a minute or two. Push the onion aside, move most of the fat to the empty end of the pan by tilting it, and add the cumin seeds and brown mustard seeds. Fry them without disturbing the onion until the mustard seeds start to pop and turn gray. Stir the onion and seeds together and fry until the onion is translucent and beginning to pick up a few brown spots. Add the garlic and cook briefly, then add the bay leaf, cloves, cinnamon, chilies, drained split peas, and cabbage. Season with salt to taste. You may have to add the cabbage in batches if your pot is not big enough to hold it all in its uncooked state. If so, pour enough water almost to cover over the cabbage and cook, stirring for a few minutes until it is reduced in volume, then add more cabbage to the salted water and cook down until all the cabbage is added. Cook the dal until it is tender and falling apart, 45 minutes to 2 hours (sorry, folks, I’ve seen it on both ends of that spectrum). Remove from the heat. Add:

1 t. garam masala
1/2 t. cayenne or other powdered chili
freshly ground pepper

Serve over rice or with toasted naan and a salad – maybe some cucumbers & radishes with a raita-style yogurt dressing.

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