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I have made countless recipes from popular Indian books and when I taste the end result, I always feel like the dish needs more spice. For example, I tried a recipe for Sri Lankan Dal with coconut found below and thought it could use more spice and it's usually too late by the time everything has been cooked since the dal needs to simmer with the spices. How can someone gauge the needed spice level of a recipe before hand? And how can someone amend the spice level after the dal has been cooked? Fry the spices in some oil and add it back to the dal?

Recipe:

  • 450g red lentils

  • 3 cardamom pods

  • coconut oil

  • 1 cinnamon stick

  • 3 whole cloves

  • 2 brown onions, thinly sliced

  • 4 cloves of garlic, crushed

  • 2cm ginger, peeled and grated

  • 2 green finger chillies, finely sliced

  • ⅓ teaspoon ground turmeric

  • 250g kale

  • 200ml tinned coconut milk

  • salt

  • ½ teaspoon mustard seeds

  • 2 tablespoons desiccated or fresh grated coconut

  • juice of 1 lime

Recipe taken from Fresh India: 130 Quick, Easy and Delicious Vegetarian Recipes for Every Day by Meera Sodha.

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    That recipe is paywalled, you have to have a New York Times subscription to read it. Please post a recipe, not a link we can't open. – GdD Jul 15 at 16:17
  • @GdD - I'm not seeing a paywall from the UK. tbh though a) dal is usually pretty bland anyway b) if you want it spicier add more spice [if you get it wrong the first time you'll know for the 2nd] & c) comments underneath the recipe are not entirely complimentary. – Tetsujin Jul 15 at 16:20
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    e.g "This was delicious! Followed the recommendations from others to double all of the spices, otherwise followed recipe exactly." – Tetsujin Jul 15 at 16:23
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    Hahahaha @Tetsujin, exactly what I say in my answer. – GdD Jul 15 at 16:24
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    If you want that 'Sri Lankan' hint, that's what the coconut is doing. As to the rest of the recipe, it's really missing a lot of the basics I'd put in a 'standard chana dal'. You could pretty much point it in the right direction with a good spoonful or 2 of supermarket standard 'indian curry powder', + optional methi &/or asafoetida, which I'd always add. – Tetsujin Jul 15 at 16:32
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Firstly, it has to be said - the way you learn to judge quantities is … practise.

However, there are several factors at play here…

  1. "Indians" [sorry, I'm generalising a whole continent into one word for convenience] don't eat mouth-stingingly-hot food at every meal.
    Some food is mild, some is 'go-for-it'. Some is rich, some is bland, some has heat, some has aromatics. There is a North/South divide on 'spiciness' or 'heat' with the Southern continent going for hotter examples, Northern more dependant on aromatics.

  2. Western "Indian" restaurants have tainted our view of what "Indian" food is.

  3. Dal can be pretty bland anyway.

  4. Your recipe is towards the bland end of the spectrum of possible dal recipes. The 'Sri Lankan-ness' in it is really only the coconut & perhaps the mustard seed.

So, that done with, in a broad sweeping generalisation kind of way, to your issue.

The recipe as written is missing a lot of what I would consider a 'basic' dal.

For a whistle-stop basic chana dal…
Boil dal with turmeric for half an hour
Fry cumin, garlic, onions
Add tomato, ginger, green chilli
Add chilli powder, turmeric, garam masala [or supermarket 'curry powder' depending on availability], asafoetida, coriander powder, dried methi
Add to dal mixture
Simmer until happy.

If you want to trick this up to feel more Southern or Sri Lankan, substitute coconut milk for some of the lentil boiling liquid, sub coconut oil for the ghee, add curry leaves & black mustard seed. Chillies, fresh green or ground red to taste.

Some of the ingredients you can add more later. Chilli powder, garam masala or 'curry powder' if you want a quick boost.
Other aromatics such as cardamom & clove, if you cheat & use them in powdered form, you can boost at any point. They're not as potent as whole, but they're a quick fix.
Another cheat is garlic powder, which is used by many restaurants rather than fresh - again, not the same as fresh, but can be used as a pep-up at any time [watch it doesn't go lumpy, make a thick slurry with water first to be safe.]

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    I think points 2 and 3 are the best explanation of the situation. It wasn't exactly bland even though I did add one more cardamom and a few more cloves, I just had this expectation that it would pack a stronger punch. Like you said not every dish has to be strong flavored, there is a definitely a subtlety of flavor in the original recipe. – user29568 Jul 15 at 21:49
  • Hing (asafoetid), I'd say, should go into the hot oil as one of the last items to be tempered - you shouldn't add it raw after liquids like tomato and onion have been added. It should be cumin and mustard seed in the oil, then fresh chilli, ginger garlic paste and hing. It burns in the oil, so it must be done quickly. Definitely agreed it also needs curry leaves for authentic Sri Lankan or Keralan flavour - also tempered around the same time as the fresh chilli. – J... Jul 16 at 13:24
  • @J… - I see recipes suggesting both methods. Personally, I've always dropped it late. I'll give it a shot dropping with the bhogar next time I make it [which is actually tomorrow, next curry night] Thanks for the tip. – Tetsujin Jul 16 at 14:44
  • @Tetsujin I think you'll notice the difference. It can go in before the ginger garlic paste, even, but you need the oil temperature under control - if it burns you have to start over. I usually use the ginger/garlic paste to quench the temper - if you have enough oil and add the ginger/garlic/hing together it makes the temperature control a bit more forgiving. – J... Jul 16 at 16:52
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    Spot on saying that South Asian dal isn't necessarily meant to be 'hot' (I'm aware some Indian dals have a lot more chilli packed into them than your average Sri Lankan dal though). Sri Lankan dal is almost like the mild, creamy accompaniment to all the other spicy curries you might have beside it. My (Sri Lankan) mother & grandmother's go-to dal recipe relies simply on curry leaves, pandan leaves, cumin, turmeric, garlic, and coconut - and it is packed with flavour (though no heat, at all). Also there's no frying of anything, it just simmers together, quite different from Indian dal! – mfox Jul 16 at 20:25
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There's a few factors that may be at work here:

  1. Quality of spices: how good your spices are to begin with, as in how much flavor they impart to food is an important factor in the result. Better quality means more flavor. Where you are in the world and where you shop can make a difference
  2. Freshness of spices: If you have spices that have been sitting for awhile you may have to use more to get the same flavor
  3. Personal taste: the recipe may be underspiced according to your taste, but fine to other people's taste. Keep in mind New York Times recipes are catering to an American sense of how heavily flavored food should be

You need to develop a sense of how much it takes of the spices you buy to produce the amount of flavor you want, and adjust the amounts upward. If it's bland, add 50% more or double and see how that works. It helps to take notes of how much of each spice you use each time. You can then use that information to customize future recipes.

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  • Like you said I think its a trial and error process, which is a bit annoying because when I do other cuisine recipes the dish tastes perfect. But, with Indian recipes, I always want to add more and it depends on the spice, like I wouldn't put 6 cardamom pods that's way too much. So frustrating! But, like you said I believe its catered to the American sense of flavor, which typically is bland so anything more than that is impressive. – user29568 Jul 15 at 16:32
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    I'd put 6 cardamom pods in some dishes, in fact I'd put a dozen depending on what I'm making @user29568. It depends on the pods, partly. – GdD Jul 15 at 16:35
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Most of the dals I know are made by boiling the lentils (with or without vegetables, tomatoes, salt, green chillies, turmeric, even whole peppercorns) and then frying spices and/or aromatics separately and adding them to the dal. There are some exceptions, but in any case you can always get away with frying an extra pinch of chilli flakes/powder in oil and throwing it in at the last minute if you want to add some heat. Other spices that are commonly added that way are mustard seeds, cumin, curry leaves and hing (asafoetida).

The key thing is, you need to fry the spices well enough to release their flavour into the dish (if you must avoid oil, dry roasting and grinding works too). Boiling spices just doesn't do that well - you end up with something bland and bitter that only tastes good after a day or so in the fridge for the spice oils to diffuse.

Another tip to bring out some extra flavour - add some souring agent like lemon juice, tamarind or amchur (unripe mango powder). But this only works if you fried the spices properly!

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