Panch Phoron – Bengali Five Spice and Red Split Lentil Dal

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From top right going clockwise: fenugreek, nigella, fennel, black mustard, cumin seeds

We’ve all heard, and no doubt use, Chinese Five Spice, but the Indian equivalent, Panch Phoron, for some reason is not given as much PR and voice in the West and yet across Bengal, it is a spice mix that is commonly used in every home and very much cherished.

When I launched my blog way back in 2011 one of the first recipes that I posted was my absolute comfort food – red split lentil dal. I cook it often as it is ridiculously easy and provides me with a quick-fix nourishing meal. You can choose whatever vegetable, if any, you need to use up, giving the dal a different twist every time you prepare it. A key seasoning to the dal, which imparts the unmistakable flavour, is panch phoron and whilst I am able to source it from a local Indian supermarket, I know that for some people getting their hands on this magic ingredient could be harder.

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So I wanted to show you how to make your own panch poron. Panch in Bengali is five and phoron is spices and these five spices are: nigella seeds (other wise known as black onion seeds, Kalonji or kalo jeera), fennel seeds (mouri or saunf), fenugreek seeds (methi), black (brown or yellow) mustard seeds (rai) and cumin seeds (jeera). The aromatic spices working together provide a  considerable depth of flavour to any dish and especially to dal.

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Unlike most spice mixes these are not ground to a powder but are cooked whole, either dry roasted in pan or placed in a little oil until they begin to pop and release their flavours – this is known as tempering. There are significant health benefits from eating the spices. In short: cumin aids digestion, fennel contains vitamin a, e and c as well as anti-oxidants, fenugreek aids metabolism, mustard seeds contains omega 3 fatty acids as well as being a good source of selenium and magnesium, nigella seeds balance the hormonal system and have healing qualities.

They store for months in an air tight container so if you make up a batch that should last you for some time as you only need a teaspoon or two every time you use it in a dish.

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There are a couple of lentils that do not require soaking over night and take a very short time to cook. Masoor dal or red split lentils, as they are more commonly known, are a staple in my store cupboard. From cleaning thoroughly to cooking, the dal takes no longer than 20 minutes to prepare – and that’s being generous – on average it’s a 15 minute meal to prepare and cook. Oooh Jamie Oliver would be so proud!

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Red split lentils are also very reasonable to buy so all in all this dish is healthy, speedy and economically friendly. A win win surely!

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I eat this dish all year round and like to change the consistency from a more runny, soupy dish to a thicker dal that may be eaten the Indian way, with your hands, accompanied by some rice or naan.  When the months turn colder I tend to gravitate more and more towards dals and soups to warm me up so this really is the perfect autumn meal to give me that inner glow.

Panch Phoron – Bengali Five Spice

Makes enough to last you for months

3 tbsp cumin seeds

3 tbsp fennel seeds

3 tbsp fenugreek seeds

3 tbsp mustard seeds (I tend to use black, but brown/yellow is also fine)

3 tbsp nigella seeds (black onion seeds)

1. In a bowl mix all the seeds together thoroughly and place in an air tight container.

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Red Split Lentil Dal

Serves 2

200g red split lentils (masoor dal)

500ml of water, add more if you would like it a thinner consistency

1 tbsp oil (mustard,vegetable or sun flower oil)

1.5 tsp panch phoron

2 fresh chilli (red or green), chopped in half

1 tsp turmeric

1 tsp salt

5 cherry tomatoes (or carrots, courgette, marrow, peas etc)

optional

fresh coriander, to serve

lemon wedge, to serve

1. Boil the kettle and meanwhile rinse the red split lentils under the tap so as to fully clean them. Then place the boiling water in the pan with the lentils. Boil for about 10 minutes on a low heat, the lentils will become less orange in colour during the boiling.  If you are going to add a carrot you need to add it to the lentils at this stage so that they are soft in time. Please note you may need to add more water if the water is completely soaked up by the lentils.

2. In a frying pan warm the oil and when it is hot add the panch phoron, fresh chilli and turmeric. Once the panch phoron begins to pop and release the flavours – this will be around 15 seconds, give it a quick stir and then add a ladleful of the watery dal into the frying pan and mix the ingredients together.

3. Now place the contents of the frying pan back into the main pot with the red split lentil and stir.

4. Add the quartered tomatoes (or peas, courgette, marrow, spinach) at this stage and simmer gently for a few minutes.  Add salt to taste.  If you want it more soupy, add more water and if you want it thicker, let it simmer for longer.


Bavani’s Cinnamon and Ginger Dal (Parripu)

Very recently I was served this comforting and fragrant dal by my Sri Lankan friend, Bavani. It tasted so darn good that I immediately asked her what she put in her red split lentil dal and proceeded to cook it the following night for the toughest of critics….my husband AND father-in-law. Yes I am definitely keen and eager when I come across a good recipe! They both gave it a definite thumbs up and declared it was unlike all the other dals they eat on a regular basis.

Don’t get me wrong I love my red split lentil dal, but this one tastes so completely different that I will definitely be cooking it from time to time. It’s not a true Sri Lankan dal or parripu, as it is known in Sri Lanka, but instead Bavani’s version of lentil soup for the Western diet. A true Sri Lankan dal would contain turmeric, green chilli mustard seeds, curry leaves, curry powder etc, but I think Bavani’s alternative will definitely appeal to a wide audience. It has a gentle chilli kick and subtle cinnamon and ginger undertones, very different from my red split lentil dal which has turmeric and panch phoron.

Red split lentils are the easiest of all lentils to cook as they are cooked in 10 minutes and do not need any soaking first – so perfect for a quick meal when you are tired and exhausted after a manic day. They are also really cheap and most importantly – healthy, so perfect for the bank balance and general well-being.

Bavani’s Cinnamon and Ginger Dal (Parripu)

Serves 4

400g red split lentils

2 tbsp mustard oil (or vegetable if you don’t have mustard)

1 whole garlic bulb, peeled and sliced

1 thai red chilli, thinly sliced

2 cinnamon bark sticks

half tsp of asafoetida

1 tsp cumin powder

2 inch of fresh ginger thickly sliced

2 carrots, sliced into small cubes

1 tsp salt

fresh coriander, chopped to serve

1. Place the red split lentils in a pan and run under cold water and wash through thoroughly, using your hands, a couple of times. This is to clean the lentils before cooking them.

2. Place boiling water into the pan with the red split lentils so that there is a good inch of water above the lentils. During the course of the cooking you may need to add more boiling water if all the water has been soaked up or if you prefer the dal to be more soup like in consistency! The lentils should be cooked after ten minutes – if you place one lentil between your forefinger and thumb it should be soft to touch; the colour will also have lightened.

3. In a large separate saucepan/wok heat the mustard oil and add the garlic and red chilli and gently cook for a couple of minutes before adding the carrots, cinnamon bark, cumin powder, asafoetida and the fresh ginger. (You want to keep the ginger fairly thickly sliced so that they are easy to identify and scoop out before serving). On a low heat mix the ingredients together for roughly 6 minutes.

4. Transfer a large spoonful of the cooked red split lentil dal to the saucepan and mix together and then place all the ingredients BACK into the saucepan with the dal. Stir in throughly and add the salt – to taste.

5. Let the dal simmer for a further five minutes or until the carrots are completely soft. You may find you need to add a little more boiling water at this stage. It is not an exact science but more one of personal taste. Add a little water at a time as you can always add a little more if necessary.

 6. Before serving scoop out the fresh ginger and cinnamon bark. Serve with fresh coriander and eat either on its own, with rice or a chapati.

It also works really well accompanying Speedy Salmon Curry,  Goan Hot and Sour Pork Curry, Chicken Liver Curry, Goat Curry