Tarka dal is probably the most commonly known Indian lentil dish – it’s cheap, healthy(ish) and extremely easy to make, once you know how. The yellow split peas (dal) is pretty tasteless itself, so you need to create a strong spice mix (masala) and add this to your cooked dal. Here’s my recipe.
1 cup of dal (yellow split peas)
1 medium onion, sliced
100 grams of butter (split into 2/3rds and 1/3rd portions)
1 cm knob of ginger, julienned (cut into matchsticks)
2 garlic cloves, crushed (I’m out of garlic, so had to use dried – so disappointed in myself!)
2 medium tomatoes (or one giant one, like I’m using), chopped
1 dried chilli or 2 fresh green chillies, chopped
2 tsp cumin seeds
6 curry leaves
1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp smoked paprika
1 tsp ground coriander
2 tsp ground cumin
Start by washing your dal. Most dal these days is quite clean, but it’s still good to give it a good rinse until the water runs clear. Hmmm, something’s not right with my photos – time to put the flash on – clearly it’s getting dark early in NZ.
After washing your dal, add in 2 cups of water (twice the water to the amount of dal being used). It’s always going to quicker and easier to cook your dal in a pressure cooker. 10 mins on a low pressure is plenty. If you don’t have a pressure cooker, then place your dal and water in a saucepan and cook on the stovetop, covered, for 40-45 mins. You’ll need to skim off the scum that bubbles up if cooking on the stovetop. Cook until the dal is tender and soft.
While the dal is cooking, melt 2/3rds of your butter in a saucepan over a medium heat (too hot and your butter will burn). Add in your chilli (if using it) and cumin seeds. Cook gently for 3 mins.
Throw in your curry leaves – careful, they will spit if your butter is too hot – so stand back! Give a quick stir.
Add in your onions, ginger and garlic and coat with the melted butter. Continue to cook gently until the onions go soft and start to go translucent.
Add in your ground spices (cumin, turmeric, paprika and coriander) and stir through the onions. You may find that the mixture dries out a bit. If it dries out too much, then put in a little more butter. Cook gently and allow your onions to infuse with the spice flavours. This is your flavour base – if this isn’t good, your dal won’t be good!
When your dal is almost ready, throw in your chopped tomatoes and cover with the spice mix. I like to put my tomatoes in here as it adds a little moisture to the mix, too (reduces the need for too much more butter!).
Check your dal – it should be soft and without any bite. If it’s a little too liquidy, then try and skim some of the liquid out. Give your dal a vigorous stir – this will break down the dal a little and help to give the dal the traditional texture. You don’t need to blend it!
I like my tarka dal rich, so I add in the remaining butter to my spice base and mix through. You may not want to do this, but it definitely gives the rich flavour that dal is known for (and needs!).
Once the additional butter is melted, add the spice base to your dal and mix through.
Bring the dal back up to the boil and cook off until you get the consistency you want. I like mine a little soupy, but still to hold its shape on a plate (ie, not a broth, but not stodgy)
Serve on fresh basmati rice and a strong pickle (lime or lemon is best!). If you’re more prepared than I am, then some freshly made chapatis are also a great hit. Enjoy!