Learn to make a quick-cooking red lentil dal, or stew, with authentic South Asian flavors. This hearty vegetarian dish is inexpensive, nutritious, customizable and cooks in under 30 minutes.
While you may not be familiar with dal, it is a staple food for millions throughout South Asia and the South Asian diaspora. The reason that dal is so beloved is because this dish checks all the boxes. Dal is healthy – with plenty of plant-based protein from the lentils – economical, easy to prepare, and full of flavor thanks to a glorious combination of spices. Sounds like something you want to know about, right?
What Is Dal?
But first, some background: the word “dal” actually means both the ingredient, lentils, and the soft, stew-like dish made from those lentils. There is certainly no one recipe for dal. Rather, it is one of those dishes that varies from region to region and even from household to household. Indeed, dal can even be made with several different types of lentils, from pigeon peas to yellow split peas to common red lentils.
The other element of a dal, besides lentils, is a tarka, which is a method of frying whole spices and aromatics in hot ghee or oil. The spices and aromatics – such as onion, garlic and ginger – are then added to the cooked lentils to flavor the final dish. Another term for this technique is tempering. So we could also say that we are tempering the spices and aromatics.
How Do I Serve Dal?
Dal can be served thin and liquidy, like a soup, or thicker like a porridge or stew depending on how much liquid you add at the beginning and whether or not you drain the excess water. Sometimes cooks add other vegetables, such as tomatoes or potatoes, to the dal.
However it is prepared, dal is typically served with Basmati rice and a flatbread, like roti or naan, which turns this soft-cooked lentil dish into a complete, nutritious meal. I highly recommend serving this dal with rice at the very least. If you are feeling adventurous, you may also want to pick up some naan from the store for your Indian-inspired feast. (I hear Trader Joe’s version is pretty good!)
Do I Need Special Ingredients For Red Lentil Dal?
It is my goal to help you create a truly authentic dal in your kitchen, so I am going to encourage you to pick up a few items at the grocery store that you may not already have in your pantry. But, I promise, you should be able to find these ingredients at a regular, well-stocked grocery store. No special trips to the Indian market required! (Although visiting an Indian grocery store is always a fun excursion.)
The first ingredient I call for in this recipe is ghee, which is Indian clarified butter. Ghee has become quite trendy lately because it is part of the popular keto diet, but Indian cooks have been using it for centuries. Unlike regular butter, ghee has a high smoking point, making it suitable for frying and sautéing at high temperatures, and it is shelf-stable. Yes, you read that right: keep ghee in your pantry, not in the refrigerator. Ghee is worth keeping in your pantry because it adds a wonderful, nutty taste to Indian-inspired dishes.
(If you cannot source ghee or prefer not to buy a special ingredient just for this recipe, the best substitute is a neutral-flavored oil with a high smoking point, such as vegetable or canola oil.)
Whole Cumin Seeds
Another ingredient that I encourage to seek out for this recipe is whole cumin seeds. Indian cuisine uses a lot of whole spices – like cumin seeds, cinnamon sticks, or cardamom pods – instead of relying exclusively on ground spices. Sometimes, Indian cooks grind their own spice mixes from these whole spices. But in this case, we will fry the whole seeds in ghee until they sizzle and pop. The seeds are then incorporated into the final dish.
(If you cannot source cumin seeds, you can substitute ground cumin. Start with a half of a teaspoon and add more if desired.)
Lastly, this recipe calls for the Indian spice mix garam masala. Garam masala is a mixture of warming spices, such as cumin, coriander, nutmeg, cinnamon, cardamom, pepper, and more. It is typically a bit sweeter and deeper in color than curry powder and it is added at the end of cooking. Today, most spice companies sell a version of garam masala and I find it easily in the spice section of my local grocery store. If you can’t find garam masala where you are, you can make your own version or simply omit it from the final dish.
Making Red Lentil Dal
In my version of dal, I rely on red lentils – or what is known as masoor dal – which are easy to find at a typical grocery store and break down when cooked into a thick, creamy stew. Red lentils also are quick-cooking and do not require any soaking or other advance preparation, making them easy to use.
I also add some tomatoes to the spices and aromatics for extra nutrition and flavor. Once you have mastered the techniques here, of cooking the lentils and making the tarka, feel free to experiment with different combinations and additions.
While this dal is highly seasoned with warm, earthy spices and even contains a fresh green chile, such as a jalapeño or Serrano, it is not spicy – just intensely flavorful. (If you are concerned about spiciness, feel free to omit the green chile.) As a result, the final dish is deeply warming and comforting, like split pea soup but with more flavor and a pretty red color!
I hope you are inspired to try making this red lentil dal at home. I think you will be really surprised by how easy it is to make and how rich and flavorful the finished dish is.
More Lentil Recipes
- 1 cup red lentils, rinsed and drained
- 1 tsp. kosher salt
- 1/4 tsp. ground turmeric
- 3 Tbsp. ghee or oil
- 1 tsp. cumin seeds
- 1 yellow onion, diced
- 1 fresh green chili, such as a jalapeño or Serrano, seeded and minced
- 1-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and minced
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 15 oz. can diced tomatoes with their juices
- 1 tsp. garam masala
- Juice of one lemon
- Place 4 cups of water in a medium saucepan and add the lentils, salt and turmeric. Cover and bring the mixture to a boil over high heat. Turn the heat down and simmer, covered, until the lentils are cooked through and have absorbed most of the liquid, about 15 minutes.
- While the lentils are cooking, make the tarka: melt the ghee in a 10-inch deep skillet or medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the cumin seeds and fry just until they begin to pop, about 1 minute. Add the onion and green chile and sauté until softened, about 5 minutes.
- Add the ginger and garlic to the skillet with the onion mixture and sauté until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the tomatoes and stir to combine. Simmer just until the mixture is heated through, about 5 minutes. Add the garam masala and stir to combine. Remove from heat and set aside.
- When the lentils are done, remove the lid and stir. If the mixture is too liquid for your liking, simmer with the cover off until thickened. Mix the tarka into the lentils and stir to combine. Add the lemon juice and taste, adding salt if necessary.
- Garnish the dal with chopped cilantro and chopped tomato, if using. Serve alongside steamed Basmati rice and Indian bread, such as naan or roti.
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