Chana Dal with Fennel and Almonds


Do you know about chana dal? I didn’t myself until last year, when I was doing research on diabetic-friendly foods (for myself, when I was hospitalized with a bad infection and diagnosed with pre-diabetes, as well as my father, who has the full blown kind). Chana dal, also called cholar dal or Bengal gram dal, looks rather like yellow split peas, but it’s actually a form of chickpea (also called garbanzo, ceci). While it is a carbohydrate like any dried bean, it does not raise your blood gluose levels much at all. In other words it has an extremely low glycemix index of 8! When I first got out of the hospital after my surgery last summer and was rather obsessed with my blood sugar levels, I really got into chana dal. It’s great in just about any dish that calls for regular round chickpeas, cooks a bit faster - especially in a pressure cooker - and has a mild, slightly sweet flavor, and a lot less of that sort of cement-like smell and texture that chickpeas have. I now use it instead of chickpeas in hummus and falafel, and it’s become a regular carb-staple in our house, even though I am no longer as worried about my blood sugar levels. (They seem to have stabilized at a pretty normal level now, unless I do something silly like eat a whole chocolate cake in one sitting. Um, not that I do that of course. ^_^;) You can buy chana dal at Indian or South Asian grocery stores - it’s a standard staple in India - as well as health food stores. I see it becoming more and more trendy as time goes by.

Chana dal may look like split peas, but they do take longer to cook. Presoaking them for a few hours or overnight helps. A pressure cooker really makes the job go faster - I can cook a cup or two from dry in my pressure cooker in about 30 minutes.

This dish is not only diabetic-friendly, it’s also vegan and gluten-free, besides being a one-pot complete meal. Oh, and tastes great too. Fennel is a common winter vegetable around here - if you haven’t cooked much with it I hope you give it a try, because it adds a wonderfuly aniseed flavor to anything. Almonds add a nice crunchy texture and lots of flavor, besides being another food that’s quite good for you. (Use another nut if you like, or even toasted sesame seeds.) You can make this dal in a regular pot, which will take a bit longer and leave the fennel pieces with a little bite to them, or in a pressure cooker, where the fennel melts away and forms a sauce for the chana dal. Either way it is terrific. For bentos, its works great as a thermal lunch jar one-item bento, or cold in a regular bento box.

Recipe: Chana Dal with Fennel and Almonds

Makes about 6 cups cooked. You can get chana dal and all the spices at any Indian/South Asian grocery store. (Note: in southern France they don’t have dedicated Indian grocery stores (although there are multi-ethnic stores like Paristore) so I stock up on my spices, dal, and other Indian goodies when I go to Switzerland, where there are sizeable Indian and Sri Lankan expat populations.)

  • 2 cups chana dal
  • 1 medium onion
  • 1 piece (about 1/2 inch / 1cm long) ginger
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 1 large fennel bulb
  • oil for cooking (I used olive oil)
  • 1 tablespoon nigella seeds (kalongi seeds, black onion seeds)
  • 1 tablespoon black or brown mustard seeds
  • 1 tablespoon turmeric
  • 1 black cardamon pod
  • 1 tablespoon dried red chili pepper flakes, or to taste - you can also use hot cayenne pepper powder or whole dried red chili peppers, crushed
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • black pepper
  • 1/2 cup slivered or sliced almonds

Rinse the chana dal and remove any stones, etc. Put the chana dal in a pot or bowl and add enough water to come up to about 2 inches / 5 cm above the level of the beans. Leave to soak for several hours or overnight. (Note: if you are using a pressure cooker you can skip the soaking part.) When you’re ready to cook them, drain them, put them in a pot or pressure cooker, and add fresh water to come up to about 1 inch / 2 cm above the level of the beans.

Chop the onion, ginger and garlic finely. Slice the fennel fairly thickly (about 1/4 inch / 1/2 cm thickness is fine), reserving some of the green leafy bits for garnish.

Heat up the oil in a frying pan over high heat and add the onions. Sauté until limp, Add the ginger, garlic and fennel. Add the spices and stir. Your kitchen will smell great from the aromas.

Add the sautéed vegetables with spices, salt and pepper to the pot with the chana dal. If you’re using a pressure cooker, bring it up to pressure then cook for about 15-20 minutes (less time if you presoaked the chana dal). If using a conventional pot, bring the pot up to a boil, put on a lid and lower the heat to a slow simmer, and cook for 20 minutes. Turn off the heat and let the pot sit for another 10 minutes.

While the chana dal is cooking, toast the almond slices in a dry frying pan over medium heat until browned and smelling very almond-y.

Taste the chana dal and adjust the seasonings if needed. Remove the cardamon pod. Stir in half the almonds, reserving the rest to sprinkle on top. Serve hot or cold with the reserved green fennel leafy bits and reserved almond slices on top. If you’re packing it in a lunch jar, you can carry the reserved almond slices separately and sprinkle them on top just before eating.

Making a big pot of this makes sense - it keeps for a few days in the refrigerator, and you can also portion it out and freeze it. You can cook it down, mash it up and make little patties out of it to pan fry on both sides too.

If you want to cut down on the number of spices, use some curry powder and garam masala instead, though it’s better with the individual spices.

Chana dal’s glycemic index and more

If you want to know more about chana dal as it pertains to diabetics or anyone concerned with the glycemic index or GI of foods, see this great article on David Mendosa’s site. There’s a lot of other interesting information about food for diabetics too.

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Re: Chana Dal with Fennel and Almonds

I agree than chana dal and other Indian bean dishes are great staples in bentos. They'll keep you filled for hours and most of them are actually better the day after.

I don't agree at all on whole chickpeas on the other hand - I find they have a wonderful texture and flavour :) Have you tried sprouting them for a day or two? It is very easy, they cook much quicker and they get a sweeter flavour, that maybe you'll like more. I'm trying to convert anyone who does not share my love for chickpeas, you know !!

Re: Chana Dal with Fennel and Almonds

I do like chickpeas...and still use them. But for some things I like chana dal better now, that's all ^_^

Re: Chana Dal with Fennel and Almonds

> Note: in southern France they don’t have Indian grocery stores

It depends whereabouts in southern France you are. We struggled until we found some in our region, but we can now get almost everything we need locally. Fresh coconuts are still few and far between. Chillis grow very well here - we had a bumper crop two years ago which kept coming until late October. We didn't do so well last year as we moved around quite a bit.

We are near Perpignan and mostly use Asia Centre in Cabestany and Asia Market in Argelès Village. There is a Thai shop (I forget the name) and a middle eastern supermarket called Super Frais in Perpignan.

Feel free to email if you want more details.

By the way, I don't know where your husband is from, but I lived in Chateau d'Oex in Switzerland some years ago. A very lovely place near Gstaad.

Re: Chana Dal with Fennel and Almonds

When it comes to sniffing out the 'right' groceries for various cuisines, I'm pretty tenacious and picky at the same time. I'm in Provence, near Avignon; here, Arabic/Moroccan foodstuffs in particular are quite easy to get because of the Arabic residents. They're even sold at my local marché. There's a Paristore in Marseille, and one in Lyon (both about 2 - 2 1/2 hours drive away), and both have a lot of Asian foods. There's a tiny Asian (East Asian) store in Avignon, and our local bio store sells some stuff. However, I spend a lot of time in Zürich anyway, which has some very good dedicated Indian groceries, and that's where I get my Indian spices and ingredients. Paristore has a lot of them too but there's more selection at a dedicated store. (And I haven't gotten around to establishing a garden yet...our house is still a shack, that comes first! ^_^;) I guess in general, around France Paristore is the best bet for 'ethnic' food supplies...but I don't know, Paristore does not impress's rather scruffy. But again...I'm picky ^_^

Re: Chana Dal with Fennel and Almonds

You seem to be pretty well sorted out :-) We're extremely picky too! We have certain suppliers we use for certain things. There's a lady at Elne market who has a very brief season for her apricots, and they are just the best. There is also the apple lady, and M. Alphonse who has the best melons.

The one thing we haven't managed to find yet is good sushi. There are a couple of Japanese restaurants in Perp, but neither is very good. Sadly one of them started out quite well but lost the plot completely a couple of years ago.

I think you should make time to do a little bit of gardening as well. Chillis are just about the most successful thing we've ever grown. They grow well in pots and are quite forgiving as regards watering. If you get them going early enough once they start producing they just keep going. For their culinary return they are the best gardening investment you can make!

Re: Chana Dal with Fennel and Almonds

Yes, making a larger batch is a time saver. I'll look for these the next time I go to the India Market. I make chana masala (chickpeas with tomatoes) and masoor dal (pink lentils) all the time. And when you get tired of eating the dal, just add some broth to make a soup - DH likes this better.

Re: Chana Dal with Fennel and Almonds

Thank you for this recipe! I am a recent subscriber, have read the whole site and purchased your book. I've been having fun making Bentos with a friend who lives across the country. We send our Bento pictures back and forth.

I just need to say Thank you for making my life more fun and interestiing and even more tasty!

Re: Chana Dal with Fennel and Almonds

I didn't realize chana dal was different than chickpeas. I love chana dal with chickpeas. My college had it for dinner once in the dining halls, and it was my favorite meal they ever served! I'm excited to see a chana dal recipe on her...I might still use chickpeas because I don't think we have an Indian food-store.

Re: Chana Dal with Fennel and Almonds

Hi there!

I've been a follower for a few years and just got your book (so excited!).

I have a question: I'm sort of tired of the plastic boxes, and now use stainless most of the time. I see on this post that you are using a wooden box. I've been eying a few lacquered boxes which are quite expensive (but so beautiful). I'm wondering about what kind of food you can and can't put in a wooden box.

Everything I read about it says to make sure to dry very carefully after washing, not to wash with anything but the mildest detergents, and yet you have dal in there which I would have thought would stain the box, and is quite a "wet food".

I guess what I'm saying is: I'm totally in love with the wooden boxes, but before I put that kind of money on a bento, I want to make sure I'll be able to use it. ;op

Any clue, warning, advice (by anyone!) is greatly appreciated!

Re: Chana Dal with Fennel and Almonds

There are 2 shops in Marseille that sell Indian stuff. There's also a Paris store. So u can find whatever u need there

Re: Chana Dal with Fennel and Almonds

This looks great, and I love chana dal, but I hate fennel (sadly, I hate all licorice flavored things). Any suggestions on what substitutions I might make? Thank you.

Re: Chana Dal with Fennel and Almonds

Just made this for my week's lunches. Tasty! I subbed pine nuts for the almonds because I am allergic to almonds (though, oddly, no other nut).

I definitely had to go to the Indian market for the chana dal. All I could find in my regular grocery store - including Whole Foods - was yellow split peas. Thankfully, ethnic markets are easy to come by in the DC area.

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