Tarka dhal. That wonderful, creamy, spiced lentil dish that goes beautifully with every Indian meal. It definitely needs to be on your list when you think about cooking Indian.
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?”
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.” 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. Pretty obvious once you know.
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.
Choosing your lentils
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.
Toor dal also works well here. For that you will need to go to an Indian grocer. At least where I live.
Either way the goal is to cook the lentils until they virtually disintegrate. Mush. I don’t ofter suggest cooking things to mush but in this case it’s what you want.
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.
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.
Tarka dal is easy to make. It’s healthy. Satisfying. And it’s delicious. What more do you want?
- 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.
46 thoughts on “tarka dhal”
Beautiful recipe Romain. Thank you. I’ve cooked many a daal and your recipe is spot on.
Delighted you enjoyed it!
Onions vary greatly in size. Can you give an approximate weight?
Love your recipes!
Sorry to take so long to respond. I’ve been traveling without an onion or a scale:-).
An onion in my kitchen is around 220 grams or about 8 ounces.
There are a few Dahl recipes I have cooked. But, unlike tarka Dahl – this is so special. There is a restaurant not far from me, I order from them from time to time. Now I have enough desire to try it myself. I will follow the recipe attentively.
Hope you like it!
Spot on !!!!
Glad you liked it!
I’ve made the several times and it’s great. I liked to add some ginger / garlic paste the the Tarka.
All kinds of ways you can take this recipe for sure.
I cook a meat free dish every Monday, so ‘meat free Monday’.
I’ve made this today and am letting it ‘sit’ to infuse the flavours more for this evening.
I’m also making naan from a YouTuber called Rizwana’s Cooking. She’s got lots and lots of great recipes. Sadly I think she died from cancer over a year ago, but I still go back to her channel.
That is sad. But her memory lives on in her videos at least. Still – very sad…
Tarka dal and naan. That sounds like an amazing dinner!
Hi Romain, great dish as usual! One question though: black or yellow mustard seeds? Yellow right? I didn’t have them and substituted with black, but I couldn’t tell if it added or subtracted from the end result.
I’m glad you liked it! I use black mustard seeds. Brown technically. Real black mustard seeds are really hard to find where I am.
I made a dish of sorts with red lentils just to try them. It’s funny, but it came close to your recipe, with a few different additions. I was just looking for something healthy. Chicken stock, curry powder, kale, fire roasted tomatoes, quinoa, onion, garlic, 1 chopped zucchini , salt, pepper and ghee for my oil. It made a very filling dish that even my husband the meat eater enjoyed. I’m looking forward to a new store opening in my area to have access to even more spices from across the world. Thank you for sharing your recipe.
Your version sounds wonderful. I often add spinach to mine. I haven’t ever thought about adding quinoa though. Will have to give that a go.
getting ready to cook this – our favourite side when we get an ‘Indian’ takeaway – out of interest when you cook the lentils do you skim the foam from the top or do you just leave it? And do you rinse the lentils first?
For masoor dal I don’t skim or rinse. I do have a look to see if there are any foreign bits but rarely find any.
Thanks for such a great recipe, by far the best recipe I’ve found. We like garlic, so I add 4 cloves of crushed garlic at the same time as the onion, and I’ve recently substituted the vegetable oil for coconut oil. Works really well.
You are very welcome. Thanks for sharing your tweaks. I like garlic so I will try that to mix things up!
I have loved Tarka Dahl for decades and one of the pleasures in eating it are the slices of garlic ( crunchy and not ) I noticed you don’t have this in your recipe ?
There are probably as many variations of tarka dal as there are cooks. If you want some fried garlic by all means add them to the dish!
This tasted better than any restaurant or takeaway tarka dhal!
Great to hear. This is hands down the dish I make the most on the whole blog. Pretty much every time I cook Indian there is a tarka dhal on the table.
Do I add the tarka to the Dahl if preparing it to add to your Dhansak, or leave it out?
Leave it out. You just want dal.
The Tarka Dhal recipe of yours is as good as any good restaurant and much enjoyed. Really, enjoying trying your other recipes too.
If you were single I would offer to marry you – lol.
Glad you are enjoying the recipes. I’ve been known to eat this dhal for breakfast. I like this one a lot.
My wife would tell you living with a food blogger that works full time in the real world isn’t as good as it sounds. She eats a lot of cold dinners late at night…
Tarka daal is our favourite side dish when we go for a curry. Tried your recipe to go with my home made chicken curry and it is delicious! Thank you. As a side dish for 2, I was able to freeze enough for 2 more curry meals. Heated in the microwave, it was just as delicious. Brilliant recipe to keep!
So glad to hear you enjoyed it. Tarka dhal is one of my go to side dishes as well.
I always use this recipe and freeze in batches for use when making the restaurant Dhansak. Fresh curry leaves really give this a rich taste, far better than dried leaves.
That’s a great idea. I usually make it and just eat up all the leftovers but I’d get more dhansak if I did it your way!
Fresh curry leaves, if you can get them, are so worth it.
Has been my favourite side dish in Indian restaurants for 30 years! Now make it to go alongside home made chicken curries. I like to try different recipes and this was lovely! Yes, you can freeze Tarka Daal and it even improves the flavour!
Nice to meet a fellow Tarka dal lover:-) Glad you enjoyed it.
This has been my favourite recipe for a while now. I make it about three times a week. I use the dry curry leaves which I have in the cupboard and add them with the whole spices at the start. I also add several whole dry Kashmiri chillies at this point and let them cook as I love eating them whole when they’ve softened. The only other things I do differently is to add a teaspoon of hot cayenne pepper midway and I use much more water when cooking the lentils. It’s an absolutely beautiful dish. Thanks!
Great to hear. I’m a big fan of dal as well!
Is it possible to freeze this, wanted to make a batch for using in the dhansak recipe?
There never seems to be any left when I make this for using in a dhansak, delicious!
I have never tried it but I expect that would be fine. I should do that too. I have the same problem…
Yes you can freeze this. I’ve made this several times and freeze it for later.
Thanks for the tip Dave! Very much appreciated.
My Pakistani colleague gave me a recipe for this from his wife. It’s almost identical to yours, except she puts in the chilli with the dahl at step 1, also chopped tomatoes. And her Tarka consists only of butter (not ghee, and I’m not sure of the science/logic behind this decision) with garlic and cumin. It’s incredible (and fast, you can fry the tarka in a metal ladle), but I am going to try your recipe tonight to compare.
Hmmm… I never thought about using butter. I imagine it adds a nice richness. I’d be worried about it burning but I will try it. Thanks!
I eat a lot of Indian food, but I’ve never tried tarka dhal before! I’m always learning new things about Indian cuisine from you, Romain! 🙂 I love lentils, so I definitely want to try this soon. Thanks for sharing!
This is a new-to-me dish and it looks absolutely delicious! I love the vibrant colour too. Pinning this!
I make some variation of this recipe pretty much every time I cook Indian. It’s one of my go to dishes.
I’m with everyone else – I had no idea what these were! Now that I know, I definitely plan on ordering them more often and can’t wait to try my hand at making them myself. It’s such a beautiful dish with those bright colors – I’m sure it tastes just as good! Pinning for later!