"Dal" has a double meaning: It is both the word for lentils and beans and the term for a thick purée or soup made from lentils. Lentil dal is essentially just a lentil soup. However, to say dal is simple also cuts its significance of flavor, of history, and importance at the South Asian table.
Why This Method Is the Best for Most Home Cooks
Lentil dal is a layered dish with thousands of variations determined by everything from the availability of certain ingredients to family traditions. But amongst them all, two components are essential to dal: tender lentils and tempered spices.
Soft-cooked lentils stewed in an aromatic broth full of onions, garlic, and ginger become the base of most dals. Tomatoes, potatoes, or other vegetables can be added as well, but those elements depend on the cook, the region, and the traditions that influence what goes in the pot.
In this recipe, we're favoring a preparation of dal that starts and finishes with the temperating of aromatics and spices and lentils simmered in a tomato-based broth. This tempering, sometimes called chaunk, tarka, or tadka, is what distinguishes dal from lentil soup. Our efforts are focused on purchasing the right lentils for a quick-cooking base and making a flavorful tadka.
A Dal For Every Pot, Table, and Taste
Lentils are an ancient food. They're well-known for their ability to grow in poor soil with little water, complementing grains to provide a complete protein, and nourishing whole civilizations. Early lentil dishes were likely cooked, along with early grains, over open fires to soften them into nutrient-dense porridges.
Cultivated throughout the Middle East, food historians believe lentils were introduced to India by Egyptians. India consumes more than half of the world's lentils today, where they cultivate more than 50 varieties of these pulses. Lentils are a fixture of dining, with some lentil dishes appearing on the table at all meal times. Similarly, you'll find lentil dishes in the cuisines of many South Asian countries and in the areas where their diaspora has expanded. In Nepal, lentils are apart of dal bhat or lentils and rice, and in the West Indies and Guyana, dal recipes often reflect a hybridization of the landscape and traditional preparations.
More than anything, dal is comfort food at its finest. Served over rice or with rotis and chapatis, it is as nourishing as it is soothing. Quick-cooking dal is made from split lentils (in this recipe we went with red) and can be dressed up with the addition of the tempering spices. Once you learn the technique, experiment with a tadka combination of your own to customize this dish. That's the beauty of dal — it's made for personalization.
Shop Your Soup — Buy the Ingredients for Success
I'm willing to bet that your local grocery store has everything you need to make dal, but a South Asian market will provide more varieties of lentils, ghee, and fresh spices and is worth exploring if you have one locally.
Ghee: Ghee is clarified butter made from butter that has been cooked to remove its moisture and milk fat in order to make it suitable for high-heat cooking. You can find ghee in shelf-stable containers at most grocery stores. Or, with some fresh butter and time, you can make your own at home anytime you need it. Although the milk solid are gone, ghee retains a flavor reminiscent of butter. In dal, it imparts an undercurrent of nuttiness and is the fat used for tempering the spice given its smoking point is rather high — around 400ºF.
Read more: How to Make Clarified Butter and Ghee
Lentils: Lentils or dal are part of the pulse family. Pulses include lentils, split peas, and beans. Pulses are a specific subcategory of the broad legume family, as they are edible, dry beans that are grown specifically for culinary consumption.
Yellow, pink, and red lentils are primarily used for dal. Red split lentils are best for quick-cooking dal and are used in this recipe for that reason. Buy these in bulk and store them in the pantry for up to a year. Before using the lentils, rinse them like you would a grain to remove any rocks or off-color lentils.
The Art of Tempering
We reached out to Neela Paniz, author of The New Indian Slow Cooker to learn more about the art of tempering. "The blooming of whole spices enhances the flavor of the dal, giving us the variety that one gets all over the country," says Neela. "This process of blooming spices — be it in ghee or oil — is called a 'tadka' or 'baghar'. Releasing the flavors of the spices and sautéing the aromatics lends the specific flavor desired to the recipe. Thus, in my opinion, without a tadka, there is no dal! Just do not burn your spices!"
We're calling for cooking not only whole cumin and black pepper in the tadka, but also garlic. These three should be cooked in ghee, as they need a high heat to temper correctly. You could swap ghee for vegetable oil, but you'll lose a lot of flavor. Watch the tadka carefully while cooking, as you'll want to brown but not burn the garlic. Browned garlic might seem odd, but it is essential to tadka and gives this dish its distinct taste.
Eating and Serving Dal
"The dynamics of an Indian meal is what makes a lentil recipe into a dal. More often than not, dal is eaten either with rice or some kind of flat bread," says Neela. Dal's thickness varies depending on the lentils used and may be thick like a curry or thin like a broth. How much water is used in cooking and any mashing or puréeing at the end will make the soup thinner or thicker. We worked to strike a middle ground between thick and thin with a recipe that calls for split lentils and by using a potato masher. If you prefer a thicker soup, skip the mashing. For a thinner soup, purée with an immersion blender before adding the tadka.
The Asian Soup Pot
Ramen, pho, and thom kha gai are some of our favorite dishes to eat out, but we tasked ourselves with mastering these soups at home — with equipment we already have and ingredients that are easily found. By pulling in expert advice, shopping smartly, and putting our broth and stock know-how to work, we're bringing these soups into our home kitchens.
How To Make the Best Lentil Dal at Home
What You Need
1 cup split red lentils
3 cups water
2 tablespoons ghee
1 small yellow onion, diced small
4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1 (1/2-inch) piece fresh ginger, peeled and minced
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/4 teaspoon ground coriander
1 bay leaf
1 (15-ounce) can diced tomatoes, or 2 diced large, ripe tomatoes
For the tadka:
2 tablespoons ghee
1/2 teaspoon whole cumin seeds
1/2 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
2 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup fresh cilantro leaves (optional)
Cooked basmati rice or roti
Measuring cup and spoons
- Cook the lentils. Sort through the lentils and remove any debris. Rinse in a fine-mesh strainer under cool, running water. Place the lentils and 3 cups water in a small saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat slightly to maintain a simmer, and cook until the lentils are tender, about 30 minutes. Meanwhile, cook the spices.
- Sauté the aromatics and spices. Heat the ghee in a medium skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onion, garlic, and ginger, and cook until browned, about 8 minutes. Add the salt, cumin, turmeric, coriander, and bay leaf, and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute more.
- Add the tomatoes. Add the tomatoes along with their juices, reduce the heat to low, and keep warm while the lentils cook.
- Add the aromatics and tomatoes to the lentils. Add the tomato mixture to the cooked lentils and stir to combine. Do not be gentle, use a wooden spoon or spatula to mash the lentils and combine the mixture.
- Make the tadka. Heat the ghee in a small saucepan or skillet over medium heat (you can use the same skillet you cooked the aromatics and tomatoes in, just wipe it clean before proceeding). Have a lid handy. Tilt the pan to form a pool of ghee, add the cumin and black pepper, and cover immediately. Once the spices stop spluttering, remove from the heat and add the garlic. It will brown quickly, so transfer the tadka to another bowl for serving after it browns, or add immediately to the lentils.
- Serve. Add the tadka to the lentils, garnish with cilantro if using, stir, and serve hot over rice or with roti.
Make ahead: The lentils can be cooked up to 3 days in advance and kept in an airtight container in the refrigerator.
Storage: Leftover dal can be stored in an airtight container for up the 5 days or frozen for up to 3 months.