Tadka Dal – Tempered Red Lentils

Tadka Dal2Madhur Jaffrey says in her book Ultimate Curry Bible, “you can take meat, fish and vegetables away from an Indian, but you cannot take away his dal – the core of his meal.” Dal, in Hindi, means lentils, but the word is used for the soupy dish that you will find in the poorest as well as the richest homes in India. Every home has its own way of preparing dal. To complicate matters, there are at least 60 different kinds of dals. I learned how to cook dal (red lentils) from my mother-in-law and how to temper dal from my own mother. Cooking dal that is flavorful and creamy is an art. Let me explain.

I’ve learned from my mistakes that perfect flavor and texture cannot be achieved in a hurry. One of the first things mom-in-law did when she started cooking for the day, was to start preparing dal. A slow-cooking process was vital. She used a heavy bottomed, medium-sized pan, to cook the dal.  Once the dal and water came to a boil, she turned the heat to low and went about her other kitchen chores until the dal was perfectly done. This method produced a rich, silky textured dal.

The tempering or tadka (also called tarka, chaunk, baghaar) part of making dal, I learned from Amma, my mother. Most non-Indian cooks think of tempering as a way of heating and cooling chocolate. In Indian cooking, it’s also the method used at the beginning of the cooking process or at the end of the cooking process, to flavor a dish. The ingredients are usually added in rapid succession to hot oil or ghee. Tempering dal should be done just a few minutes before serving. The aroma of sizzling spices in hot oil is one of the best parts of eating a simple meal of plain rice and dal. For me, tadka dal takes me back to when I was a young girl growing up in Pune. It soothes my spirits, cheers me up, and brings back happy memories.

Tadka Dal – Tempered Red Lentils
Prep Time: 5 minutes
Cooking time: 40-50 minutes
Serves: 6

1 cup red lentils, (masoor dal)
3 cups water (plus more hot water to achieve your preferred consistency)
2 teaspoons finely chopped ginger
2 teaspoons finely chopped garlic
1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder

Ingredients for tempering (tadka):
2 tablespoons peanut oil, (or ghee)
1/2 teaspoon black mustard seeds
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
1-2 dry red chillies, (depending on heat and your preference, optional)
a pinch of asafoetida, (optional)
1/2 cup diced shallots, (optional)
5 curry leaves, (optional)
1 tablespoon chopped fresh cilantro leaves, (optional)

Wash the masoor dal (red lentils) in several changes of water until the water runs clear. Add the dal to a heavy bottomed saucepan and cover with three cups of cold water. Bring to a boil and skim off any scum that rises to the top. Add the ginger, garlic, and turmeric. Turn the heat to low. Cover with the lid, that is slightly ajar, to avoid from boiling over, and simmer gently for about 40-50 minutes. Stir occasionally until the dal is completely broken down. Use a whisk to stir until the dal becomes creamy. Add hot water to bring the dal to the consistency that you like. It can be as thin and soupy or thick and creamy as you desire. Add salt.

Having all the ingredients for the tempering process ready. Heat oil or ghee in a small frying pan over medium-high heat. When it shimmers, add mustard seeds. When the mustard seeds splutter, turn the heat to medium, and add cumin seeds, dry red chillies, and asafoetida. Fry for 15 seconds and then add the chopped shallots. Stir and cook until the shallots turn golden. Add curry leaves and fry for 20 seconds. Pour this over the dal. Add chopped cilantro as garnish. Cover with lid and let the dal stand for a few minutes. Serve with plain rice or rotis.

Sambar – Spicy Lentils with Drumstick


I have a large collection of sambar recipes, but I am sharing the one that I make most often. I like this recipe because it uses freshly roasted and ground sambar powder. You will find that making the sambar powder takes just a few minutes but the flavor it adds is well worth the effort.

The vegetables that I’ve added are drumstick, potatoes, and shallots. I use frozen drumstick from the Indian grocery store as fresh drumstick is hard to come by in the U.S. I find that the frozen drumstick takes longer to cook so I microwave them for three minutes before I add them to the rest of the vegetables. If you can get fresh drumstick, that is much better and you will not have to microwave them. Other vegetables that are commonly used are eggplant, radish, french beans, pumpkin, okra, and carrots. This recipe is hard to beat so give it a try and let me know if you agree.

Sambar – Spicy Lentils with Drumstick
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cooking time: 30 minutes
Serves: 6

For the Sambar Powder
2 tablespoons whole coriander seeds
6 dry red chillies, (depending on heat and your preference)
½ teaspoon whole black pepper
¼ teaspoon fenugreek seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds

In a small pan, over low heat, add coriander seeds. Stir constantly while you roast them until the color changes to brown. Add the rest of the ingredients and roast for another two minutes. Remove and let the spices cool completely. Put the spices in a coffee grinder and powder. I have a coffee grinder that is used only to powder spices.

For the Dal
1 cup toor dal/arhar dal, (split, yellow pigeon peas)
2 cups water
2 cloves of garlic, crushed
1 tsp turmeric powder
1 tsp coconut/canola oil

Wash the dal in several changes of water and cook in a pressure cooker with two cups of water, garlic, turmeric, and oil. I used my old Hawkins pressure cooker and the dal was done after three whistles. About five minutes. The time will vary depending on your pressure cooker.

For the vegetables
12 pieces of frozen drumsticks, (microwave with 3 teaspoons of water for three minutes)
1 large shallot, cut into eight pieces
1 large potato, cut into twelve pieces
2 green chillies, slit down the middle, (optional)
2 cups water
2 tablespoons tamarind, (soaked in 1 cup warm water)
3½ teaspoons salt

Soak the tamarind in one cup of warm water for about 10 minutes. Extract the tamarind juice, strain and set aside.

In a large pot, over medium-high heat, add the partially cooked drumstick, shallot, potato, green chillie, two cups of water and one cup of tamarind juice. Cook until the vegetables are done. Add the fresh sambar powder, the cooked and mashed dal, and salt. Stir gently. If the sambar is thick add one cup of water, bring to a boil, and simmer for five minutes.

For tempering
1 tablespoon coconut/canola oil
½ teaspoon black mustard seeds
¼ teaspoon asafoetida powder, hing
1 sprig curry leaves
1 shallot, sliced

Add coconut or canola oil in a small pan and place it over medium heat. When the oil is hot, add mustard seeds. Be careful because they will pop and splutter. Then add asafoetida, the curry leaves and sliced shallot. Fry until the sliced shallot turns golden brown. Add this seasoning to the sambar and stir. Garnish with chopped cilantro and serve with steaming hot rice and papadam.You can also have sambar with South Indian dishes like dosa and idli.