If you ever have to cook a meal for family or friends who have different dietary requirements, dhal could very well be your saviour – it’s suitable for vegans, vegetarians, and those with gluten and dairy intolerances. You can serve it as a main or a side, with rice, quinoa or roti (flat Indian bread). Throw in some vegetables and you’ll be dishing up a complete, hearty meal. And since dhal is made from lentils, it’s also a good source of protein.
Some believe dhal is bland, but I think that’s got more to do with the recipe than with the dish. In my opinion, dhal should always be flavoured with a ‘tarka’ – or ‘dhal fry’ as one of my friends calls it – which is added towards the end of cooking. What I put into my tarka depends on my mood (whether I want strong or mild flavours). But it generally consists of fried onions, garlic, curry leaves, cumin seeds, asafoetida, mustard seeds and chilli.
There are many types of lentils – such as masoor (red), moong, toor and urad. Some are more popular than others because they take a shorter time to cook and don’t need any pre-soaking. I use red and moong lentils in my recipe for that very reason.
- ¾ cup red (masoor) lentils
- ¾ cup moong (mung) lentils
- 6 cups (1.5 litres) water or homemade vegetable stock (I generally use water)
- 1 tsp turmeric powder
- 2 teaspoons roasted, ground cumin
- 2 medium-sized carrots, chopped into 1 cm pieces
- 4 cups (tightly-packed) chopped silverbeet or spinach
- ¼ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
- salt for seasoning
- 1 tbsp of extra virgin olive oil (or ghee if not dairy intolerant or vegan)
- 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- 10 curry leaves (you can buy these from most Indian grocery stores)
- 1 tsp mustard seeds
- 1 brown or red onion, finely sliced (I love the colour of red onions, but brown onions will give a stronger flavour)
- 1 tsp cumin seeds
- 6–8 garlic cloves, finely chopped
- 20 g fresh ginger, crushed
- pinch of asafoetida (helps with digesting lentils)
- ½ tsp crushed dried chilli (add more if you can handle it 😉 )
- 2 tomatoes, diced
Combine lentils in a bowl and wash thoroughly – at least twice – and drain off the water. Put the washed lentils in a large (3–4 litre capacity), heavy-based pot with the 6 cups of water (or stock). Partially cover with the lid, and bring lentils to a boil over medium heat. You will need to keep an eye on the pot so the water doesn’t boil over. Once the water starts to boil, remove the white slough that rises to the top. Add the chopped carrots, turmeric powder and ground cumin. Once the water starts to boil again, turn down the heat to a simmer (I find using a diffuser useful). Simmer the lentils on gentle heat for about 20 minutes. Stir occasionally so the lentils don’t stick to the bottom of the pot. The lentils are cooked when they’re soft (not al dente), and have emulsified with the water. Keep it simmering on very low heat while you make the tarka.
For the tarka, heat the olive oil in a small fry pan or saucepan. Add the curry leaves to the heated oil until they become crisp (less than a minute), and then add the mustard seeds. Once the mustard seeds begin to pop add the sliced onion, cumin seeds, chilli, chopped garlic, crushed ginger and asafoetida. Fry over low–medium heat until the onions are golden brown. Add the chopped tomatoes and cook for another 3 or so minutes. You can then pour the tarka into the simmering lentils, or you can do what I do: add 3 ladles of the cooked lentils into the fry pan with the tarka, stir quickly for a few seconds (be careful, the lentils might splatter) and pour this mixture back into the rest of the cooked lentils. This method captures all the flavours of the tarka.
After mixing the tarka with the lentils, add the silverbeet (or spinach) and cook for another couple of minutes. Stir in the lemon juice and olive oil (or ghee), and season with salt to your taste.
Serve on brown rice, quinoa or roti, with a side of raita or crisp salad.
Dhal is fairly quick and easy to make, especially once you’ve made it a couple of times. Once you get the hang of it, you can tweak this recipe to your liking. The main ingredients are lentils and water – everything else can be changed according to personal preference, such as the spices, and vegetables. The variations are endless. Here are some examples:
- You can vary the amount of water (or stock) you add to the lentils if you prefere a thicker or more ‘soupy dhal.
- A basic tarka recipe is olive oil, curry leaves, mustard seeds, garlic and chilli. This will still give plenty of flavour.
- Replace 1 cup of water with once cup of coconut milk, particularly if you are using tomatoes and ginger, as these flavours go together.
- You can use almost any vegetable with low water content – e.g. green beans, broccoli, cauliflower and pumpkin. Since the cooking time varies for each vegetable, add them to the lentils at a point that gives them enough time to cook (they can be added before the tarka, like I’ve done with the carrots in this recipe).