The lentil is a simple ingredient that forms a huge part of the Indian diet and is a common component in most Indian meals. Easily accessible it provides nutrition for the poorest people and although it is a humble ingredient it is rich in variety and flavour.
Lentils grow in pods which contain two or three in each in Asian and North African regions. They are full of protein and carbohydrates as well as being a great source of calcium, phosphorous, B vitamins and iron. The wonderful thing about lentils is that there are so many different varieties and each one has its own texture, taste and use. They can also be mixed with other varieties to produce new flavours and dishes. Depending on whether the lentil has been split, the skin has been removed or it's whole creates a different variety which requires different cooking techniques. While most people associate lentils in Indian cuisine with dhal, there are loads of dishes which uses lentils to add flavour and consistency.
They are usually sold dried but can also be found pre-cooked in tins.
It's really important that you cook lentils (and beans) properly as some of them can have toxins that need to be cooked out.
I always wash my lentils in cold water to remove excess starch and any shrivelled up lentils as well as little stones that may be present.
Lentils need to be cooked in four times the water to the quantity of lentil and seasoned with salt. Remember that lentils soak up water and expand so one ramekin full is more than enough for up to 4 people.
The sauce that you put the lentils with is what makes the dish so spend some time getting this right and the lentils will soak up the flavours making the final dish delicious.
The cooking time also depends on the variety of lentil and what form it comes in (split, whole, hulled). In general terms split lentils can take up to 20 minutes to cook and whole lentils can take up to 45 minutes to cook, however, some lentils will take a whole lot longer and will require soaking overnight and then I prefer to pressure cook them or slow cook them.