Tarka Dhal – the Ultimate Comfort Food
For me, tarka dhal is up there with my favourite foods to sit, eat and forget the world! It’s not sophisticated, it’s not fancy, but made well – it takes great!
Almost all Indian restaurants serve tarka dhal and undoubtedly, each will have its own recipe. I suspect the recipe differs from village to village, region to region in India too – but all will have the same basic principle: dhal (lentils) with tarka (tempered spices).
This is the first (and definitely not the last) dhal that I’m sharing with you. Simply because it’s always my go-to. I rarely eat dhal on its own. I’m way too greedy for that. And that’s why I’ve marked this both as an accompaniment and a main dish!
I eat it as an accompaniment with another curry. But there’s no reason why you couldn’t serve up yourself a big bowl and eat with rice or flatbreads.
What is Dhal?
Daal, dal, dhal – there are many ways of writing this, possibly because we’re trying to create a word that isn’t traditionally written in Roman letters. Dhal (or dāl) is Hindi for split pulses, and typically includes lentils, peas or chickpeas (garbanzo beans) and there are thousands of ways of preparing them.
In India, vegetarianism is relatively common, particularly among Jains and some Hindus; dhal is one of the principal ways of getting protein.
It’s great for vegans for this reason, but dhal is traditionally made using ghee – and we now know that ghee isn’t the healthiest ingredient to use, so we’re using a little vegetable oil, with just a mere hint of standard butter. It does need a creaminess to it to balance the acidity and sourness from the tomatoes and spices.
If you’re vegan, or want to eat a lower fat version, you can add a little palm sugar – but don’t go crazy with it – palm sugar is still sugar, you shouldn’t need more than a tablespoon.
Also, I do not salt my dhal. And if you’ve ever seen anyone make dhal, salt is something that is usually added in abundance. But I use less than a teaspoon of course salt to grind my wet spices, and I honestly don’t think it needs more than that. This dhal is definitely not bland!
If you chop your spices as so many in India do, you may lose some of the power of the spice – you need to smash them with a pestal and mortar. Otherwise, you’ll need to add salt – and let’s face it, most of us should seriously consider looking at the amount of salt we consume (less than 6g daily is recommended).
- 150 g Split yellow peas Moong dhal (for speed, just use red lentils - they'll cook much faster)
- 3-4 cloves garlic Peeled, sliced
- 10 g Ginger root Peeled, sliced (about 2cm or so)
- 4-5 Dried Green chillis
- 1 tsp turmeric powder
- Pinch Asofoedtida (Hing powder)
- 1 tsp Cumin seeds
- 1 tsp Garam Masala
- 2 medium tomatoes Chopped
- 1 medium onion Peeled and chopped
- 1 tbsp cooking oil
- 1 tbsp butter
- 1 bunch coriander leaves chopped
If using yellow split peas, rinse well and soak for a good hour before starting. Otherwise we can go straight ahead.
Boil a pan of water and add the lentils. When it comes to a boil, you'll notice some scum float to the top, scoop this off.
Once the scum has stopped forming, add the tumeric and asafoetida (hing) to the water with a small pinch of salt (just literally a pinch!). Cook until the lentils soften and you can squish them against the side of the pan with the back of a spoon.
Meanwhile, in a mortar, put your roughly chopped ginger, garlic and chillis and add a sprinkle of course salt and a few white peppercorns. Now bash with the pestal until you form a paste
Heat oil in a pan and when it's hot, add the cumin seeds. Once you can smell them, add the onion and fry until the onion starts to brown. Then add the wet spice paste.
Fry until you start seeing the oils separate and then add the chopped tomatoes, garam masala. Keep moving the paste and cook until the tomatoes have softened.
Transfer the tarka paste into the dhal and give a good stir. Add more water if you need to - make it the consistency you want. Maybe that's really thick or maybe it's very watery - you choose! It's your dhal!
Just before you're ready to serve, stir in some of the coriander and add a little more garam masala if you feel it needs it. If your tomatoes aren't very tart, then you may need to add some acidity - you can do this with a little lemon juice or tomato paste.
Serve with a sprinkle of coriander and a spoon full of thick yoghurt
Seb is a nutritionist registered with the Association for Nutrition and a writer specialising in plant-based nutrition and men’s health. He graduated from Chester University with a masters degree in human nutrition and loves discovering new and vibrant plant-based recipes.