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.

Last modified: 
11 Jun 2019 - 06:19

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