Where Local and Global Appetites Collide

Spiced Lentil Cakes for the Indian Cooking Challenge

Yay! I’m so glad I had a chance to participate in the Indian Cooking Challenge this month, and the recipe chosen was more than perfect: because it is a sattvic recipe, there’s no onion or garlic that I have to substitute for. Lentils can be high in oligosaccharides (the O of FODMAPs), but after a year of being pretty strict with my diet, an occasional meal that includes high-FODMAP ingredients can be tolerated with few issues.

Spiced Lentil Cakes, ready for their close-up!

And, aside from needing to use a little more salt than I did, it was incredibly tasty!

Dhokar Dalna
Adapted from Sandeepa


For the Lentil Cakes:

1 1/2  cups Dal (lentils)
6 small Green Chilis
salt to taste

Cooking Oil

3/4 tsp Cumin seeds
a pinch Asafoetida
1/2 tsp sugar
1 1/2 tsp Ginger paste

For the Gravy:

1 potato, sliced in eighths

2 small Bay leaves
3/4 tsp of Cumin Seeds
pinch of Asafoetida/Hing

1 tomato, diced
1 tsp grated ginger

1 tsp plain Yogurt mixed with:
1/2 tsp of Coriander Powder
1/2 tsp of Cumin Powder
1/2 tsp of Red Chili Powder
pinch ground Turmeric

1 1/2 cups water

sugar to taste
1/4 tsp Garam Masala
1/2 tsp Ghee

It feels a little like playing "cooking show," but an organized mise en place really does make dinner that much easier!

There’s a lot of moving parts to this, as you can see, but if you measure everything out at the beginning it actually is quite a smooth process.

You do need to start the night before, though, by soaking the lentils in water. I thought about just starting them to soak in the morning before going to work, but opted for the long soak instead. Once you’re ready to make supper, drain the lentils and then place them into the bowl of a food processor or food mill along with the chilis and a bit of salt. If necessary, add a bit of water to keep the mixture moving around freely–I didn’t need to.

Now that I know my food processor does this good a job on soaked lentils, I'm going to try the next soaked-rice-and-grind recipe that comes up with a little more confidence.

In a large frying pan,  heat some oil (maybe a couple of tablespoons–the recipe wasn’t really specific) and add the first measures of cumin seeds, asafoetida, sugar, and ginger paste and saute until the cumin seeds are nice and fragrant. Add the lentil paste and stir until “moist and soft but not runny or hard.” I suppose this depends on how wet your lentil paste was to begin with; since I didn’t have to add any water I didn’t have to cook mine too long. This step was reminiscent of making pate a choux with the constant, vigorous stirring.

Tempering the oil with the first batch of seasonings...

...before adding in the pureed lentils and chili mixture.

Oil a plate (I used olive oil spray) and spread the cooked lentil paste on it, patting it with oiled hands until it’s fairly level. Cut the paste into squares or diamonds–I went with diamonds. There was no guidance on how big to make them so I just did what looked right. I guess they’re not more than 3-3 1/2 inches at their longest part. They were about 1/2 an inch thick, too, which turned out to be just right to keep them from breaking later.

The flatter plate the better--a small pizza pan might work well, too.

Add some more oil to the pan and pan-fry the lentil cakes until golden brown. I used a small spatula to ease them off the plate and into the oil. They turned golden very quickly and took about 3 batches to finish up.

They fry quickly so don't get greasy at all.

Empty all but a couple of tablespoons of oil from the pan and fry the potato slices until lightly golden, turning to get all the edges. Remove them from the oil and set them aside. Into the hot oil add the bay leaves, second measure of cumin seeds, and asafoetida and let the seeds get a bit fragrant again before adding the diced tomato and ginger.

Frying the potato wedges...

...and tempering the second batch of oil to start the gravy.

Now, the directions said to saute until there is “no raw smell” left of the tomato. This sounded odd at first, but it makes sense if you think about the difference between, say, the smell of a fresh tomato and that of tomato paste. You’re going for the paste smell. Once you get there you’re going to add the paste of yogurt, coriander, cumin, chili powder, and turmeric and turn the heat down to low/medium-low and cook the masala until fragrant–a good nose is very useful in this style of cooking!

I was amazed at how quickly the tomatoes broke down into a paste...

...then it was time to add the yogurt mixture. To prevent it from breaking, keep the heat low.

Return the potatoes to the pan along with the water and salt to taste, cover and simmer until the potatoes are cooked through. This is where I started thinking that, as far as gravy goes, this one was going to be weak. This is also about the only break you get with this meal prep, so I used it to start some baby carrots in the steamer as a side dish and check that the rice (started before I began this recipe) is nearly finished.

That tiny bit of ghee really did the trick!

Check that the seasonings are good for  you and the sugar, garam masala and ghee. Now, it may not seem like that little bit of clarified butter is going to do much to this watery tomato juice but I was amazed at the change it gave to the flavor and mouth-feel of the sauce. Add the lentil cakes into the pan and let them soak up the gravy (I flipped mine over after a couple of minutes to let both sides get gravied before spooning them over rice and pairing with the minted carrots.

Those lentil cakes are thirsty!

The lentil cakes were very dense and filling: 3 diamonds were plenty for a meal with the rice and carrots and made for a good lunch the next day, reheated. I ended up with 5 servings, total, and about the only quibble I had with it was that I needed more gravy. So, if I get the urge to try this again, I’ll be doubling the gravy ingredients so there is plenty to go around.

With basmati rice and minted carrots, the spiced lentil cakes made a very hearty meatless meal.

Jennifer Walker
Jennifer Walker

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