Tarka dhal. That wonderful, creamy, spiced lentil dish that goes beautifully with every Indian meal.
I make this one almost every time I cook Indian. It gets made a lot. Probably the dish I cook the most.
Tarka dhal is super simple to make. You cook some lentils with a little turmeric. Cook them until they are mush. And then you make a seasoning. That’s the tarka.
It’s as easy as frying up a bit of onion and spices. Mix it up and eat. It’s delicious.
Satisfying. And healthy. Hard not to like that. And nobody knows about it. At least where I live.
You need to try tarka dhal
It’s a funny thing. This is how it goes when I go out for Indian with friends.
“Let’s get a dopiaza.”
“OK, and a jalfrezi.”
“Sure, and how about a madras?”
“Anyone up for a vindaloo?”
Then I pipe up. “How about a tarka dhal?”
“Tarka what? Is that lamb? I don’t like lamb.”
“Just trust me.”
Nobody ever wants to order tarka dhal. Nobody seems to know what it is. I always get pushback.
Then they taste it.
“What did you say these lentils are called? They’re awesome.”
Happens every time.
Tarka is the seasoning
Tarka is an Indian technique. It’s a way of seasoning. Some people call it a tempering. Whatever you call it, it’s a great little trick to add to your repertoire.
Fry some spices in hot oil. That infuses the spice flavour into the oil Add some onions and maybe tomato. Maybe a dried chili or two.
Take it off heat and stir it into whatever you want seasoned. In this case it’s dhal. Tarka dhal.
It works as a final seasoning to curries too. I use it when I really want to bring the flash to south Indian dish. Fried chilies and curry leaves? That’s icing on the cake.
This tarka dhal has south Indian flavours
I love fresh curry leaves. I use them a lot. I’m lucky. It’s easy to find them where I live. But not everyone can find them.
That’s OK. If you can’t get them don’t worry. Not the end of the world. It will still be delicious.
Curry leaves add a bit of a south Indian twist. They are great in all sorts of Indian dishes. Sambar. Curries. Even as a garnish in this Kerala fried chicken.
Not all lentils are created equal
I like masoor dhal for this recipe. They are the little red split lentils.
You can get them at Indian groceries or you can buy red split lentils at your regular grocery store. They are the same.
They work really well. And they are really cheap. Dhal is great that way. Satisfying. Nutritious. And really cheap.
Toor dal is great in this recipe as well. It’s more expensive. And it’s harder to find. You’ll almost certainly need to go to visit and Indian grocer to get them.
That’s not such a terrible thing though. All kinds of fun stuff to get at an Indian grocer.
The texture is the thing
I see a lot of pictures of masoor dhal dishes where you can see the individual lentils. I’ve never understood why.
That might be good for lentil salad. But it’s not great for this dish. I want it smooth. Almost like a really thick sauce.
With little bits of chili and tomato and onion. The combination of those creamy lentils with little bursts of flavour. That’s my idea of great tarka dhal.
And the way you get that wonderful texture is to cook the lentils until they turn to mush. I don’t know that I’ve ever said that on glebekitchen. But that’s the secret.
Mush. Normally I’m against it. Card carrying member of the anti-mush society. But in this case I don’t want it any other way.
Stretch your dinner budget
Lentils are cheap. Masoor dhal is really cheap. It’s satisfying. Filling. It is stick to your ribs food.
And it works great with rice. Like those lush curry sauces that you love. The ones that you just want mix into your rice because it’s just so tasty.
I’m not saying that you’ll like it better than your favourite curry. But I am saying that you can serve less of that favourite curry and put serve tasty tarka dhal alongside.
And everyone will be happy. They might even be happier. Because variety is the spice of life. More great flavours on the plate. How can that be a bad thing?
Vegetarian or vegan friendly
India has one of the biggest populations of vegetarians in the world. They have been figuring out how cook incredible vegetarian food for centuries.
So it should be no surprise that tarka dhal makes a great vegetarian entree. You can easily build a vegetarian menu around it.
A saag paneer, an eggplant curry, this tarka dhal, rice and chapattis. That is a feast by anyone’s standard.
Or serve it up as a side dish. It’s great with rice. Or with Indian flat breads. You can even thin it out and serve it as a soup. I do that with leftovers.
You need to tarka dhal in your life
Tarka dal is easy to make. It’s healthy. Satisfying. And it’s delicious. I make it almost every time I cook an Indian meal. And I cook a lot of Indian meals.
If you’ve never tried tarka dhal you’re missing out. Good enough to stand on its own. A perfect complement to your favourite curry. I’d say it’s a must try.
I don’t even care whose version you make. Just make it. Pick any decent recipe and you can’t go wrong.
And maybe next time you go out for Indian you can impress your friends. Order some for the table. Let them into the secret too.
- 1 cup masoor dahl
- 3 1/2 cups water plus more as needed
- 1/2 tsp turmeric
- 1 tsp salt
- 3 tbsp oil vegetable or other neutral oil
- 1 onion finely diced
- 2 kashmiri chilies optional
- 1 tsp mustard seed
- 1 tsp cumin seed
- 4 green chilies de-seeded and chopped
- 10 or so fresh curry leaves
- 1 tsp dried methi – dried fenugreek leaves
- 1 tbsp tomato paste in 2 Tbsp water or some fresh tomato, diced
- 1 tbsp lemon juice – about 1/6 of a lemon
- handful of cilantro chopped
- Combine the masoor lentils, water and turmeric.
- Bring to a lively simmer uncovered. Uncovered is key. I've had lentils boil over on me more times than I can count. Now I start them uncovered. Problem solved.
- Once the lentils come to a simmer, reduce heat to low and cover.
- Cook lentils until they completely break down into a creamy consistency. You will not be able to discern individual lentils. This should take somewhere around 40 minutes.
- Add the salt. You will adjust the seasoning at the end.
- Heat the oil over medium heat.
- Add the kashmiri chilies if using. Cook until the edged just start to bubble.
- Flip the kashmiri chilies. Add the mustard seeds and cumin seed and fry briefly. They should crackle a bit and dance around.
- Turn the heat down a bit and add onion. Cook until the onions are translucent.
- Add the green chilies, curry leaves and methi and continue to cook for around 2 minutes.
- Stir in the tomato paste or fresh tomatoes if using. Cook for 20-30 seconds then add the tarka to the dahl..
- Stir to thoroughly combine.
- Adjust consistency to your taste with little bit of water (I like it a bit runny).
- Add the cilantro and lemon juice to taste.
- Adjust salt. Around a half a tsp give or take. Creep up on it. You can add salt. You can't take it away.