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Making Dhal, Trini-style

Dhal, Trini-style - enjoy.I’ve been thinking about posting on dhal for a long time now, but Cynthia (of Tastes Like Home) did a dhal post last year, called Dal, Dhal, Dahl together with her column. Since she’s Guyanese, I find it strange that she left out the “Dholl” spelling that so captures the rounded vowel and emphasis of her native accent, but I’ll bypass that 😉 since her weekly column at the time was a great exposition on the subject of dhal. Not just in the Caribbean, but her exposure to the great varieties of dhals out there. Dhals are great, going well with rice or roti and a nice addition to the protein diet when you’re enjoying vegetarian.

No matter what you call it, and how you spell it though, for the traditional East Indian populations of Trinidad and Tobago and Guyana, there really is only one thing that goes by the name. So much so that it’s not just this one dish that’s called Dhal, but the yellow split pea that we use to make Dhal is called Dhal. No matter that dhal may be a term used to describe split pulses in general, we only give one pulse the honour. Even when it’s not cooked into dhal the dish, we call it dhal – dhalpuri, anyone? – I remember a family friend mentioned that her children loved macaroni and dhal and laughed at our the faces we made, telling us she stewed the dhal so it really did go well with macaroni.

rice dhal and saimBut getting back to the more traditional, or recognised use of the yellow split pea – making dhal, the dish. I love dhal. I like it with sada roti. I can drink it like a soup. But most of all I love it with rice. I have memories of my grandmother, and a great aunt, who made saffron-y yellow dhal, spicy and hot with pepper, and the taste of the chunkayed brown garlic and whole geera, decorating the dhal with black teardrop flecks. Dhal was served in 2 ways – rice was mounded on half of a soup plate, and into the other half was ladled this fragrant, steaming liquid and you burned your fingers mixing the two  – or pile up the rice and make an indentation in the middle and fill it to overflowing with the dhal, eating from a side and gradually mixing and eating your way to the middle, still burning the fingers of course. To this day, it’s not enough dhal for my father, or Lilandra, if it’s not spilling over the rice, pooling on the sides of the plate and threatening to drown out the white. Of course, Lilandra also required people to mix her rice and dhal when she was younger, before she could eat it, complaining if the rice and dhal were distinguishable as separate entities (in her defence she was very young – 3 or 4).

A dhal, according to wikipedia, is essentially made the same way, whatever the source split pulse – boil with turmeric and salt then add the tadka, tarka or chaunk (aromatics and spices fried in oil, with the whole mixture poured onto the completed dhal). We follow this rule, but without varying the tadka. Dhal, Trini-style - chonkaying the dhalWe chunkay (act of frying aromatics and spices in oil – we also chunkay for our curry) with sliced garlic and whole geera (cumin). Mmmm. Chunkaying dhal. I used to think it was such a mysterious process – it must be – that those blackened bits speckling the yellow could release such fiery, smoky flavour that changed the whole nature of the boiled peas. Of course, it’s not just the garlic and geera bits that add to the dhal, but especially the flavour that the frying of these most important of ingredients has infused into the oil, which spreads throughout the pot. Deliciousness.

The chunkaying is something special for me also because we went through a period where Mom didn’t always chunkay the dhal – she boiled the dhal with geera and garlic etc, and didn’t want to add the extra oil. Dhal, Trini-Style - Chonkaying!But we begged for the flavour, missing what we had become accustomed to, even though there were some who seemed to dislike charred teardrops in their dhal. Ptht to them. The mysteriousness of chunkaying was also increased by the apparent danger of the process. You had to light the entire burner and put a relativel small ladle (kalchul) full of oil directly over the fire, add the geera, then the garlic, watching them splutter and get browned. You then had to open the dhal pot as little as possible, shove in the kalchul and empty its contents while at the same time keeping the pot cover closed. And listen to the sizzle that told you magic was happening.

Dhal, Trini-style - modern blending!We also liquefy dhal. Not for us dhal with the shapes of the original peas still discernible. Oh no, we want liquid, as pure as we can get it. Traditionally, we use a dhal ghutney (a wooden swizzle stick) to mash the boiled dhal, and swizzle it away into a smooth fluid. Of course, that’s not always a perfect process, and in eating the dhal, your tongue would occasionally come across little morsels that added some texture – especially nice when you were just enjoying the dhal as soup, or with rice and no other vegetables or meat. But if you hanker for the perfect smooth liquid dhal, just do what I do – STICK BLENDER!!! Woohoo! Some kitchen tools are just worth their weight in gold. You can make cream of anything…but back to the dhal making.

It took me a long time before I felt I had the culinary mastery to undertake dhal. My room mate in UWI used to make the dhal and she always swore it was straightforward. But I took my time. And in fact it is simple in theory. So simple, I wondered whether I should blog about our yellow split pea dhal making. But you know what, there are people who searched for my cheese paste recipe…in fact there are now more daily searches for that than barfi! So, maybe there’s a yearning to see the dhal process, although not accompanied by any real information 😀 In any case, I have now recorded another key element of my menu and my memories.

Of course, since I made the dhal at night, the pictures are grainy and not of the best. I need an assistant. Or a job that gives me more time to cook!

Dhal, Trini-style: RECIPE

Dhal, Trini-style - boilingIngredients
* 1/2 lb yellow split peas, soaked for a few hours and drained
* water to cover the peas by an inch or two
* 2 cloves of garlic smashed
* 1 whole congo/habanero pepper or a few small bird peppers
* salt and black pepper to taste
* pinch of turmeric (I don’t like to overdo it, the turmeric can overpower)

[You can add other spices, like ground dhania (coriander seed), ground geera, even green seasonings, or onions, if you fancy…I know some people make dhal with ahm chicken feet, or other meat parts…]

1. Boil the above until the peas are very soft (a pressure cooker is also handy) but there is still enough liquid in the pot for the peas to move freely. Keep an eye on the water content during cooking – burnt peas don’t make for great dhal.

2. Use a swizzle stick or ghutney, or a stick blender to liquefy the dhal.

* 2 tablespoons oil
* 1 teaspoon of whole geera (cumin seeds)
* 1 clove of garlic, sliced thinly

1. In a large kalchul, or small frying pan (or something like a Turkish coffee pot), heat the oil.

2. Add the geera and let get medium brown.

3. Add the sliced garlic and let brown to your liking.

4. Add oil with garlic and geera to dhal and cover the pot. After it has sizzled, stir the pot.

Serve as soup, or with rice, or roti and curry.

Of course, despite what I said at the beginning of this post, there is actually another type of dhal recognised in Trinidad at least. Not sure about Guyana. And that is peas dhal. Even more descriptive, ent? Actually we also call it green dhal. 😀 This is actually dhal made from pigeon peas (gungo peas). It’s not generally liquified as the yellow split pea dhal, but it is still mushed and swizzled. Pigeon peas are used also in a peas puri, as a variation of our dhalpuri, so I guess the Indian indentured labourers that came over here more than a 150 years ago used what they found readily available. But I have never had peas dhal anywhere outside the homes in my village, so I don’t know how popular or known it is. People may really just think it’s curried peas?

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45 Comments so far (Add 1 more)

  1. I know both names, peas dhal and green dhal but thought they were different dishes. The old Doubleday cookbooks, vol 1 & 2 of 1975 had a recipe for Dhal – yes, it was called dhal. I have the books which I bought recently in a flea market. I doubt the Doubleday Cookbooks have anything close to Chunkaying the dhal :)

    I think this blog is an excellent cookbook in the making.

    2. aka_lol on March 27th, 2008 at 5:11 am
  2. I know there are green split peas that are sometimes around, and it makes green dhal, but I didn’t know how readily available those were. I may have to adjust my last paragraph, but I’ll wait till my mother chimes in to tell me whether my recollection is all wrong!

    3. Chennette on March 27th, 2008 at 12:01 pm
  3. Hmmm.. you know me so well….
    It really seems as though peas dhall is native to us in our village as others call it curried pigeon peas as opposed to stewed pigeon peas. Peas puri however seem to be made throughout Trinidad.
    Well yes there is green split peas and this is what I used to cook everytime we travelled to the USA in the early days. It is only in the 90’s that yellow split peas was readily available in Giants and Weis markets . To get yellow split peas , one had to go to specialty shops or West Indian stores. But since most times we were in University towns where the town was the University we seldom found them. So like in Blacksburg , we used green split peas all the time. However while in Vermont, the short trips to Boston and Montreal allowed us to pick up yellow split peas in those places.

    I do agree that this blog is a cook book in the making , Insha’Allah. Your lentils tasted great over the weekend and if I use that yardstick for your dhall then it would also be fantastic on the palate…….
    Take care, Mom

    4. TriniMom on March 27th, 2008 at 5:39 pm
  4. Ok…so does that mean that the green split peas was NOT made in our house in TRINIDAD?
    And I have met other Trinis, like aka_lol who recognise the peas dhal, so not just us.

    5. Chennette on March 27th, 2008 at 5:49 pm
  5. Oh yes I cooked green split peas in our house but when you add the saffron and seasonings it was a pale yellow, and tasted the same, it was never green unless of course no saffron or curry was added. And talking about curry, your paternal grandmother always added curry to her dhall as she did not care too much for that plain yellow thing called saffron……lol
    But her dhall was always chunkayed with birdpeppers , cared for the trees just for that purpose.

    6. trinimom on March 27th, 2008 at 5:59 pm
  6. ahhh, that would explain why her dhal always had this extra spicy, seasoned flavour, with lots of black black geera. Hers used to taste just like her sister-in-law’s too (we would get rice and dhal almost every day after school the year we spent there) so maybe it was a family thing.

    7. Chennette on March 27th, 2008 at 6:10 pm
  7. How funny, I was also going to post on dal! I’ll save mine for later. I cook dal almost every week when I am home. And like you, I like mine smooth, so the blender is almost always used. Lovely pics.
    Actually I grew up with my mother and relatives cooking both green and yellow split peas dal, pigeon peas dal, channa dal, mung dal, as well as mixed dal. So it probably differs according to the recipes different families brought/remembered. They also have a huge repertoire of foods that most Indo-Trinidadians aren’t aware of.
    Pigeon peas dal is also popular in India, in fact in Trinidad we associate pigeon peas with the African descendants, but pigeon peas originated in Asia. Called toovar/toor dal.

    8. Nicole on March 29th, 2008 at 7:58 pm
  8. Hi Nicole – thanks for the comments – I look forward to your dhal post. I know there are differences in the foods or memories of families, which may depend when the ancestors came over perhaps? My village in Central didn’t have many of those varieties you mentioned, but we did do pigeon peas!

    9. Chennette on April 1st, 2008 at 9:40 am
  9. Different coloured dhall was always around but it depended on where your family came from originally and of most important though their likings , decided what was cooked.
    So Urdid dhall was cooked in our home and we refused ot eat it …..my mother to did not like it but she thought she should at least try it as her mother cooked it …. She did not prejudice us however.
    Groound Urdi however was always a must in her baras to which she served with hot peppery soft channa and tamarind chutney…..

    10. trinimom on April 1st, 2008 at 12:16 pm
  10. Did I ever tell you that my mum makes some of the world’s best dhal? Not chana dhal or moong dhal but masoor dhal, I think. Made with red lentils. What you call chunkaying she calls baghara and getting it just right makes all the difference to the dhal! Mum was married to an Anglo-Indian in a former life and learnt from her mother-in-law.

    11. Trig on April 2nd, 2008 at 11:34 am
  11. Hi Trig – very interesting! What does she add to the baghara? Did she learn variations?

    12. Chennette on April 2nd, 2008 at 3:39 pm
  12. I have this big, broad smile on my face still after reading your post. I love it. It makes me want to go and cook dhal now and it’s 11 o’clock at night! Man, I can just smell that garlic and jeera.

    I forgot about the dholl! (lol)

    Hey, you should try chunkaying it with garlic and black mustard seeds, it gives a nice and different flavour or use it in combo with the jeera and garlic.

    Girl I could eat dhal daily and never, ever get tired of it. Thank you for this post which I enjoyed so very much.

    13. Cynthia on April 2nd, 2008 at 11:02 pm
  13. Chennette, if you knew me you’d know that the ability to make good dhal is one of the pursuits of my life. Dhal and rice is one of my favourite things to eat so much so that I tried your recipe on the exact same day that you posted it. By far it was the best dhal I’ve ever had. Thanks for that recipe. I tried all kinds of things to make my dhal taste authentic and nothing ever worked. I’m actually going to make some more today.

    14. Mani on April 3rd, 2008 at 11:56 am
  14. Mani! How you be?
    Happy to know that the dhal recipe worked for you 😀
    It’s great feeling when you learn to capture that taste, isn’t it?

    15. Chennette on April 3rd, 2008 at 2:59 pm
  15. Chenette could you please ask Cynthia (Taste of Home) to bring over the bunjal say that we all can meet for dinner. I’ll bring the drink, swank-Guyana’s best.

    16. Mochagold118 on April 4th, 2008 at 2:13 pm
  16. By the way, I forgot that I have some dhal in the fridge right now to go with some fishcake and rice. So I am not drooling over my keyboard too much

    17. Mochagold118 on April 4th, 2008 at 2:15 pm
  17. Nice post. I grew up with a variety of dals as well. In Grenada (yes, Grenada recieved indentured servants, too. The frist ship came May 5,1857 it was called the Maidstone) we make green split peas dal, yellow split peas dal, channa dal, pigeon peas dal, etc. And also dals mixed in with other stuff in it; dal pithee (dal with dumpling), bhaji dal (dal with callaloo or other bush), okro dal (dal with okro), etc. It’s funny; I was also gonna add a dal post soon too. I guess I’ll postpone for a while (lol).

    18. Kimberly on April 4th, 2008 at 3:05 pm
  18. Yes …. brings back memories , dhall dumpling or pithee dhall and of course dhall with ochroes , my mother loved but I could not eat hehehehe. She forced me to eat with my first pregnancy saying it is good food to assist delivery but never again after that …….
    Thanks Kimberly for taking me down memory lane.

    19. trinimom on April 7th, 2008 at 6:44 am
  19. Hi Mochagold – lord, swank! it took me so long to figure out what that was! 😀

    Kimberly Thanks for commenting – I like the recipes you have accumulated on your site so far. And yes, I admit that while I knew there were so many similarities between Grenada and Trinidad in terms of food, I forget that the indentured Indian experience also links us (not only Sparrow and Pauk Keens Douglas).

    20. Chennette on April 8th, 2008 at 5:49 pm
  20. I had dhal, rice and bhagi for lunch today. I had a hunkering for dhal this week, and bought up all the ingredients, save one, the most important one…the geera! But I still made it, but when done, it didn’t have that smokeysweet flavour that it gets from the roasted cumin seeds… it just wasn’t the same. And now after reading your post, I’ll try my hand at it again – this weekend using your receipe, afterall you can never have too much dhal!

    21. TamarindBall on April 10th, 2008 at 4:37 pm
  21. when i read ‘geera’, i know it’s a caribbean author. lol. we always spell it jeera. and dal. this dhal, dholl, dahl business is very confusing. and very tasty. my fav dals are either totally plain (only salt and ghee) with split husked mung beans, or with lemon, or with lemon and greens, with split pigeon peas (tur dal).

    22. bee on April 11th, 2008 at 11:09 am
  22. I have married an East Indian, whose father is from Trinidad and mother is from Guyana. He was born in Guyana but moved here at a young age. Anyhow, his mom has taught me some of his favorite dishes but there are always secrets she leaves out so he has to come home to get it right. Thanks for sharing about the chunkay process. Maybe I can get it right now. Do you know anything about using salted codfish?

    23. White Girl on April 30th, 2008 at 1:09 pm
  23. Hello and welcome!
    I have one recipe using saltfish, for Accra which is like a spicy saltfish fritter.
    We use saltfish in tomatoes choka; sauteed with ground provisions; in buljol (Trini dish made with saltfish and onions and peppers and herbs etc, served with bakes); people sometimes make a kicheree rice with split peas, provisions and some saltfish.
    The trick is to boil it or soak it a few times in hot water to get the extreme saltiness out, then flake or chop and use.

    24. Chennette on April 30th, 2008 at 2:17 pm
  24. I tried to make dhal d other day and it come out like rice pudding. So how to avoid that?

    25. Umar on May 12th, 2008 at 1:16 pm
  25. Hmm…maybe you need to boil with more water? so that it doesn’t thicken right away. If you see the water disappearing before it’s completely cooked, just add more. Even if it’s already pudding-y, you can add more water and boil it to get it loose again.

    26. Chennette on May 12th, 2008 at 2:59 pm
  26. I tried my best to follow your recipe for dhal (which is my second attempt at making dhal btw) and alhamdulillaah it came out much better than the first time, but still when it cools down the thing still comes out like rice porridge. Even though it taste good, and ah do everything yuh say, ah find it still doesn’t taste like when them aunties make it to eat with d roti or rice?

    27. Umar on May 29th, 2008 at 12:22 pm
  27. Assalamu ‘alaikum Umar. Sorry the rice pudding thing seems to be happening again. By rice pudding do you mean too thick? Too lumpy? The consistency problem can usually be solved even after it’s cooked by boiling with more water, blending some more. If you have any more details, I can get my mother to visit the page again and offer her words.

    28. Chennette on May 29th, 2008 at 1:01 pm
  28. I am so glad I found your blog. I have been dreaming of making dhal all night even though I’m not even sure if I like it. I’ve had it twice–once my MIL made it in and I was underwhelmed and the second time was much better when her sister made it. However I can’t ask for the recipe so I have a few questions…

    1. My husband doesnt like it with the whole geera in it and suggested that I grind it. Do you have any suggestions on how I can do this?

    2. What would happen if I chunkayed the geera, and put it in the dhal as usual, but after a few moments (not sure how many), strained the geera back out? Do you think this could work?

    Any other suggestions….my husband is from Guyana but I’m not so I have no clue!

    29. Sandhee on July 15th, 2008 at 3:02 pm
  29. Hi Sandhee, thanks for the nice comment 😀 I hope I can help.

    You can use ground geera and add it to the dhal while boiling AND just after it’s chunkayed with the garlic – in order to get the best flavour without chunkaying, I would suggest toasting the whole geera in a dry pan and then grinding fresh (as opposed to purchased ground cumin).
    But your suggestion about chunkaying with the whole geera and taking it out (just before serving?) is probably better! The whole geera generally floats as black specks to the top and you can skim all or most of them off before serving. It depends how picky your husband is about the whole seeds 😀

    30. Chennette on July 16th, 2008 at 4:31 pm
  30. Hi Chenette! Its me again….I chunkayed the garlic and the geera but never put it in because I was scared of ruining the whole pot of dhal in case I didn’t do it properly. I have a new question…is the dhal boiled with or without a cover?

    My MIL boils it with a cover, but then again, the way she makes dhal is different than the way you make it altogether—a different topic for a different day. LOL.

    31. Sandhee on August 21st, 2008 at 5:40 pm
  31. Hi Sandhee – as long as it’s not burned to a crisp, the garlic and geera shouldn’t ruin the dhal! (and some people may like it black…)

    I cook dhal now in a pressure cooker, so that’s covered ;-D but before that I would boil it covered until/unless it was rattling too much then I’d leave the cover ajar, it helps with the boiling process. Did you try the chunkayed stuff with a bowl of the dhal?

    I’d love to know how your mother in law makes the dhal though – it’s always good to learn about new things.

    32. Chennette on August 22nd, 2008 at 12:56 pm
  32. I never had the guts to try this dish until i read your blog, give or take, the first couple times it came close but now, I RULE!!!!!!!!! i mean, my friends used to tease me, cuz i’m an indian and i can’t cook dhal……now they are by me every time i do curry….lol :-)

    34. jazzy on December 8th, 2011 at 9:58 am
  33. woohoo, LOVE comments like these :-) I helped someone RULE!!
    Good to hear!

    35. Chennette on December 8th, 2011 at 6:16 pm
  34. Great read.

    36. consulting on October 30th, 2013 at 12:27 pm
  35. Dumb Trini lady trying to knock all Guyanese as usual… it’s funny and sad but it seems as if we are always on your mind constantly. We feel great that you find us so interesting as you have to make mention of “Guyanese” so frequently.

    37. Sprite on February 2nd, 2014 at 12:21 am
  36. I am not quite sure of the reason for the insulting language. Or the belief that I was knocking Guyanese in this post, perhaps you didn’t READ the post? And not to further cast aspersions on your intelligence, but of course Guyanese are always on mind… I LIVE in Guyana.

    38. Chennette on February 2nd, 2014 at 2:15 am
  37. I more like my paternal grandmother than I know
    I don’t care for saffron aka tumeric either

    39. Lilandra on February 2nd, 2014 at 2:31 am
  38. Lilandra,

    I was just reading your post and wanted to let you know that Saffron and Turmeric are two very different spices.
    Saffron are little orange colour threads that we get from the middle of Saffron flowers.
    Turmeric are roots that were dug out of the ground (“looks like” ginger root).

    Hope this helps many others to know the difference between these two spices.

    40. D. Singh on September 16th, 2015 at 2:29 am
  39. Dear D – people call and market the turmeric powder in Trinidad as Saffron (cheap substitute for colour etc in some dishes when people didn’t have access to the saffron threads), hence Lilandra using those terms. Our mother actually has grown the turmeric or haldi so we know where it comes from as opposed to saffron threads.

    41. Chennette on September 17th, 2015 at 9:49 pm
  40. Now let me start by saying I’m trini born, raised. Eventually i moved to nyc but i never made Dhal now that im an adult. I want to make it this weekend. It sounds simple but I’m afraid that I mess it up. Any tips for a first timer? I have everything except the tumeric. I want to make spinach with it also on the side.

    42. Nadine on June 30th, 2016 at 3:38 pm
  41. Hi Nadine. The most stressful part of dhal is the chunkaying at the end, but these food bloggers have an alternative where you fry up the garlic and geera in oil and boil the dhal with it. Additionally, with no turmeric you could use some curry powder for the flavour.
    Eatahfood Dhal Video

    43. Chennette on July 1st, 2016 at 9:36 pm
  42. Thank you..it came out great

    44. Nadine on July 4th, 2016 at 6:26 pm
  43. Do you have a recipe for curry fish without frying? I don’t like fry foods

    45. Nadine on July 4th, 2016 at 6:27 pm
  44. Great!

    46. Chennette on July 5th, 2016 at 1:43 am
  45. I curry fish all the time without frying. You just have to be gentle. I sauté onions, garlic, pimento, add curry powder and water, let it bubble up together, add tomatoes and smash them in a bit and let that cook (adding more water if required) until you have a nice more-or-less cohesive curry sauce (add green seasoning etc). Then lay the seasoned fish in gently, lower heat to medium, turn once during cooking, and spoon curry over the fish until cooked. You could add a piece of mango anchar to the fish for a sour/spicy flavour. Or coconut milk to the curry mixture before you add the fish.

    47. Chennette on July 5th, 2016 at 1:47 am

2 Trackbacks

  1. […] Lifespan of a Chennette blogs about Dhal (a beloved dish of both Trinidad & Tobago and Guyana) and posts a helpful recipe. Share This […]

  2. […] Dhal, trini-style – spicy boiled and chunkayed yellow split peas, served in liquid form to accompany rice, roti or as a soup […]

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