Lentil Dal

This is my favorite teaching recipe, since it really does use herbs and spices from the ground up! You get a light lentil stew with rich layers of flavor. It’s kind of exciting.

Yield: Serves 6-8

  • 1 ½ cups uncooked brown (green) lentils
  • 4 cups water
  • 2 bay leaves
  • ¼ cup light vegetable oil
  • 2 tablespoons black mustard seeds
  • 2 tablespoons cumin seeds
  • ¼ teaspoon asafetida
  • 1 fresh hot pepper, finely chopped
  • 4 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
  • ½-inch piece fresh ginger, finely chopped
  • 1 teaspoon turmeric
  • 2 onions, chopped
  • ½ cup dried unsweetened coconut
  • 1 tablespoon light vegetable oil
  • 1 28-ounce can diced tomatoes
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 2 tablespoons ground cumin
  • 2 tablespoons ground coriander
  • ¼ teaspoon cayenne or crushed red pepper
  1. Measure the lentils, water and bay leaves into a medium-size pot. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer, partially covered, stirring occasionally to keep the lentils from sticking. Cook until the lentils are tender, about 30 minutes. You must actually taste them because lentils are tricky and can look done when they’re not. If they’re not tender yet, add half a cup of water and continue simmering. Set aside.
  2. In you big soup pot, heat the oil over medium low heat. Pour in the mustard seeds and cumin seeds, and cook till they’re actively popping. This happens fast so be careful not to burn them. You can stir and lower the heat, or even take the pot off the heat temporarily to keep things safe. Stir in the asafetida, then the chopped hot pepper, the garlic and ginger, then the turmeric. Cook 2-3 minutes, stirring frequently. If it starts to stick, add a bit of oil.
  3. Add the onions. Stir and cook for 5 minutes. Add the coconut along with one tablespoon oil, then cook for 5 minutes more.
  4. Add the tomatoes along with their juice and the salt. Cook for about 15 minutes, stirring frequently.
  5. Stir in the ground cumin, coriander, and cayenne. Add the cooked lentils and their water. Continue to simmer 20 to 30 minutes to marry flavors.
  6. Taste and reseason. The final seasoning is a crucial part of the art of Indian cooking. Very often to achieve a flavor that “pops” you need to add a bit more salt, a bit of sweetening (sugar, molasses, maple syrup), a bit more oil, or the juice of half a lemon. You can test additions by adding them to a small bit of the lentil dal, noting if the addition pushes it in the right direction. This is a fine place to consult with the people around you!
  7. Garnish with fresh cilantro if you wish.
  8. Enjoy with rice, vegetables and salads, chutneys and breads for a big Indian feast! Or it’s a great meal by itself with some crusty bread and butter.