How Dry Dal made social studies come to life!

a spice market with pans of rice, beans, and other ingredients

I don’t know about you, but I wasn’t a fan of history. At least not history classes in school. I remember the teacher I had for American History (that’s American History I and American History II!). He’s not remembered by me for his stellar teaching techniques believe me! But it was more for the fact that day after day, he stood at the front of the class, staring into his briefcase and reading his notes. Maybe he looked up to ask a question. I definitely don’t remember that. Some kids loved him as a teacher. I wasn’t one of them. He spoke in a monotone voice and painted no pictures of real people, real events, or anything that made me think history was actually interesting.

This guy I would have listened to!

History Buff in the making!

But I did love history. I was a huge fan of documentaries. I read numerous biographies of soldiers in WWII, read Anne Frank more than once, watched Rat Patrol with my father every week, and even had dreams about the holocaust that were so real and detailed, my aunts wondered how I knew about things like flame throwers and the roads built through the forests of Germany for the tanks to drive on. I was just 8 or 9. Its clear history was in my blood. But in a classroom setting, with a teacher who didn’t even look up, and only expected us to memorize names and dates, I was a floundering failure of a student. On my final exam, he included what he called a “give me” question. In other words, the question was so easy anyone should get the correct answer.

Name an important player in WWII whose initials are W.C.

-My History Teacher, sometime in the early 70s

For some reason, rather than listing the obvious, Winston Churchill, I wrote “W. C. Fields.” I also spent Sunday afternoons watching the Shirley Temple Film Festival with my father. Maybe “Curly Top” was the previous Sunday’s matinee? Needless to say, I flunked my exam.  

A child taking a test
Flunking history, it was my thing!

The next semester that year I had the same teacher for American History II. These days I do wish I’d paid more attention but think I wasn’t built for the monotonous lecture-style we were provided. As I’ve mentioned in other posts, we had a progressive school. When it came time to write a midterm paper, we got our choice of topics, as long as it related to WWII. I chose music, something that has always been a passion of mine. I covered the impact music had on that era, how it changed from WWI to WWII, and how it was used to boost people’s morale.

Music reflects the times we’re in. What will music say about us today?

I also provided nice long lists of composers’ names, famous musicians, hit records of each year… definitely, lots of names and dates, because that seemed to be what my teacher was so fond of. My teacher then educated me on the meaning of plagiarism. But really, I didn’t plagiarize, dates are dates, and names are names. “There’s not much scope for the imagination,” as Anne of Green Gables would say.

Now we’re cooking! Literally.

But in the 9th or 10th grade, I had a class that covered more than dates and names. We covered world history, and our teacher immersed us in the study of culture, music, dress, and yes, history. When the midterm time came around we were given the opportunity to select our choice of country, and our choice of topic. We were encouraged to make our presentation interactive (YES!!!). My friend Megan and I decided to cook a traditional dish from India. We decided for extra credit we’d make chocolate mousse, and cover France as well. Not because we were overachievers, but because it allowed us to serve food in class, and especially delicious food! Eating in the classroom was definitely not allowed, but it was our midterm, how could they say no?

Garam Masala straight from India, and Turmeric from our local shop

We researched easy Indian dishes and decided on dry dal. I remember that dish and that class to this day. Funny the things that will stick with a young mind. I’m creating a slightly different version tonight for dinner. It’s pretty tame when it comes to spices and heat, but it’s still a quick, simple, and filling dish! I made it with Masoor Dal (Red Lentils), which cook a little faster than Moong Dal (yellow lentils) which I used back in school.

I’m also using some spices (Garam Masala) my wife brought back from India when she was there for business earlier this year. That was before lock-down came and none of us could go anywhere. I’m hoping to go on the next trip with her. But until then, enjoy this recipe. It’s great served with Basmati rice, some mango chutney, and a bit of yogurt on the side to cool things off. We had hard cider, but a nice lassi would also be good. If you have issues with spicy, just leave the chile pepper out.

Dry Masoor Dal
(makes 2 – 3 servings)


  • 2 TB light olive oil
  • 1 cup Red Masoor Dal (split)
  • 1 tsp Red Chipotle Chile Pepper
  • ½ tsp turmeric powder
  • ¾ tsp salt
  • 1 tsp Garam Masala powder
  • 1 TB lemon juice


  • Rinse dal and set aside
  • Heat oil in a deep saucepan and add chile pepper, turmeric powder, and salt and stir for 10 – 12 seconds until you can start to smell the spices.
  • Add the rinsed dal and stir to blend
Dal with spices in the pan
  • Add enough water to cover the dal (for me it was about 2 cups), reduce the heat, cover and allow to simmer
  • Cook until all the water is absorbed. Test the dal to make sure it is soft. If not, add a bit more water and continue to cook.
  • Once there is just a small amount of liquid in the bottom of the pan if you move the lentils, increase the heat, and add the garam masala. Stir well, and continue to cook until all water has been absorbed.
  • Transfer to a serving bowl, squeeze some lemons on top and serve with rice, naan, and your choice of chutneys.
A photo from Beth’s last trip to India

I think that learning about a country’s culture, it’s music, it’s traditions, is the way to bring history to life. And when you’re learning about something as deep and dark as WWII, learning about the people who were impacted, rather than just memorizing names and dates is the way to engage students in the act of learning and building a habit to always ask for more. Were you good at history? What was your favorite class and why?