what not to rush: tarka dhal

Last month I wrote about getting myself psyched for the oncoming storm(s) by delving into soul-warming long-cooked food. The steam on the windows is just one emotional cue for me. Add in minimally processed ingredients, long periods of time in between stirring to grab a book or a craft project or a sheet of stationery and an envelope, home fragrancing you don’t have to plug into the wall, and the luxury of avoiding that five-pm-what-now-ohgod-must-feed-everyone neurosis and what you get? A real reason to make time for this, whether you can do it during the day or whether you squeeze it in on a weekend. Last week Heather and Jo requested this dhal recipe, but I can’t take credit for it. It’s adapted from a recipe I got from another Heather I know, this one here in Ottawa. LocalHeather does amazing things with simple, fresh ingredients, and I’ve stolen plenty of recipes from her. The sweetness of the cooked onion and the fresh bite of cilantro make this dish craveworthy, even though it’s not the most visually appealing thing you’ll ever eat. Myron loves it as an excuse to eat lots of naan and rice, but most of the time I eat the lentils by themselves.

Things to know: There are as many dhal recipes out there as there are websites, so if you like this one, I suggest you search for others to explore other ways of making it. Often restaurant tarka dhal is pureed, but I like the slubby natural texture in this recipe. You might want to go easy on the spices until you’ve had a bowl, just so that you can determine what’s missing for you. I almost always double the recipe because it reheats like a dream. Finally, I’ve made this with shredded spinach or tomato added along with the onions. I like both of those variations, but try it this way first.

Tarka Dhal (serves four to six)

[note: To wash red lentils, place them in a large bowl, cover them with water, swish your hands through the lentils, let them settle at the bottom of the bowl, and pour off the cloudy water. Repeat until the water comes away clear.]

  • 9 oz/250 g red lentils, well washed and drained (this is just under a cup and a half, if you don’t have a scale)
  • 2 teaspoons freshly ground roasted cumin
  • ½ to 1 teaspoon turmeric powder
  • ½ to 1 teaspoon ground celery seed
  • 1 to 2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger 
  • pepper, cayenne, or curry powder to taste (optional)
  • 1 medium onion
  • peanut, canola, or other neutral oil (or ghee, if you have it)
  • 1-2 teaspoons whole coriander seeds
  • 1-2 teaspoons whole cumin seeds
  • 3 cloves garlic (a great time to use really good garlic, if you can get some), chopped with ½ teaspoon kosher salt
  • fresh cilantro to taste
  • basmati rice or naan (optional)

1. Place the washed lentils, cumin, turmeric, and ginger in a heavy pot. Add pepper, cayenne, or curry powder, if using. (Remember that cayenne will intensify the longer you cook it.) Cover with five cups of water. Stir well. 

2. Bring to a boil, lower heat to medium, and cook 20-25 minutes. The lentils will begin to disintegrate in about ten minutes. Skim off any foam that rises. Cover, reduce the heat as low as you can, and continue to cook 30 minutes up to three hours. Stir often enough to keep the dhal from sticking to the bottom of the pot. Add more water as needed. 

3. Meanwhile, slice the onion into thin half-moons. In a skillet, toss the onion with just enough oil to coat. (I sprinkled a bit of my homemade curry powder on the slices.) Cook them gently until they brown, but don’t let them get too dark—just pleasantly soft and sweet.

4. When the lentils are done to your satisfaction, stir in the onion and kosher salt to taste. Wipe out the skillet for the next step.

5. To make the tarka (topping): In a cleaned skillet, add 1 to 2 tablespoons oil or ghee and heat on medium. Add cumin and coriander seeds and cook until they sizzle—think of it as “steeping” to get the flavor from the seeds into the oil. Add the chopped garlic, cook for around one minute more. The garlic should stay white or light gold; don’t let it get brown! You just want the flavor of it to get into your oil. Pour the tarka on top of the finished lentils, put the lid back on the pot, and let the flavors meld for a few minutes. Stir everything all together, taste for salt, and serve with basmati rice or naan, garnished with cilantro if you like.