We ask Indian food expert Perzen Patel for some easy tips for cooking the perfect dahl that’ll have you absolutely set for winter (and also help with that RIDICULOUS grocery bill) – here are her 5 best dahl recipes.
As someone that was born in India, dahl is not the exotic dish you might see on Instagram, but rather, it’s a must-have – I think the longest I’ve gone without eating dahl in my lifetime is about five days! While I could eat dahl on any day of the year, the best time to give it a try is in winter.
If you’re reading this thinking, ‘yup, that’s cool but I prefer soup,’ – wait.
Yes, soups are warm and nutritious as well. But only when you make them at home and let’s be honest, doing that takes ages (not to mention the mess!)
Also, you could spend $5 on a packet or can of soup – or for the same $5, you could buy a kilo of dry lentils at your local Indian grocer! That’s going to make you enough dahl for a fortnight, making it the perfect solution for those of us that are now saving up to buy a kilo of tasty cheese (who knew that would be a thing!)
The best part about cooking dahl is that it’s versatile. There are SO many ways to eat it and if you’re up for a splurge, you could even buy three or five different kinds of lentils, all for under $10. Here are five ways to cook your dahl with my five best dahl recipes:
Keep it simple with a Dhandar
Commonly made by the Parsi community of India, Dhandar comes together in a jiffy and requires only five ingredients – toor dahl (pigeon pea lentils), turmeric, salt, cumin seeds and ghee. Soak the dahl in water overnight if you’re cooking it in a saucepan or for 2-3 hours if you own an instant pot or pressure cooker. Start by warming up the ghee. When hot, pop in the cumin seeds. Add in the other ingredients with water and cook for 20 minutes. Blend it together and serve with steamed rice and some Indian pickle – easy as!
Go traditional and make a Tadka Dahl
Tadka Dahl is the one you’re likely most familiar with since it’s on the menu at many Indian takeaways. While this dahl is also traditionally made with toor dahl (pigeon pea lentils), you could make it with chana dahl (split chickpea lentils) as well. Tadka dahl’s signature creaminess comes from tempering the dahl twice (see below!). Start with a tempering of cumin, black mustard seeds, onions, tomatoes and green chilli in 3-4 tbsp of ghee. When the tomatoes and onions have caramelised add in your dahl and the spices. Cook until the grains are mushy without any separate grains visible. Now, finish the dahl with yet another tempering of ghee, chopped garlic, curry leaves, and whole red chilli.
Pack in the protein with a Panchmel Dahl
A staple from Rajasthan, the Panchmel Dahl literally means a mixture of five dahls – it’s great for when you want to cook something nutritious or clear out the small jars of lentils lying around in your pantry. Panchmel Dahl is traditionally made with Toor Dahl, Yellow Moong Dahl (Skinned green gram), Green Moong Dahl (green gram), Red Masoor Dahl and Chana Dahl. Follow the same steps you would for a Tadka Dahl except you will also need to add in some coriander powder and fenugreek leaves for that earthy umami taste. In your finishing tadka, replace the curry leaves and garlic with thinly sliced onion.
Mix in some veggies to make a Red Lentil Cauliflower Dahl
I must admit that I’m not usually a fan of cauliflower anything – I blame my multiple unsuccessful attempts at keto. However, this dahl that combines red masoor (red lentils), cauliflower and coconut milk is a hidden gem. Since both red lentils and cauliflower cook quickly, this dish comes together faster than other dahls. Replacing the water for coconut milk also makes the dahl super creamy. The technique is exactly the same as making the tadka dahl except you swap the toor dal for red masoor and the water for coconut milk. Feeling like some greens? Add in a few baby spinach leaves at the end too.
Having a dinner party? Impress your guests with a Toor Dal Pulao
Save this one for special occasions like that mid-winter Christmas party or an evening with family and friends. I originally found this recipe in the classic cookbook, ‘Vividh Vani’ which was published around1867. I’ve tweaked the original recipe and included spiced lamb meatballs – or kheema kebab as we call it – along with some heavy lashings of cream and ghee. Paired with a cucumber and curry leaf raita, the Toor Dahl Pulao is a complete meal on its own.
The key to a good dahl is your tempering – the tadka – as well as ghee
When you’ve cooked one dahl, you know how to cook all the dahls. What you need to perfect is the tadka – or tempering of the spices – as that’s where the real flavour is.
The key to a great tadka is the ghee. Indian food writer Krish Ashok explains in his book Masala Lab that the opening “tadka” gives a depth of flavour while the goal of the finishing one is to impart a whiff of flavour. What you put in your tadka and when is determined by the thickness of the spice’s coating or the amount of moisture it contains.
Mustard seeds, cumin and pepper are relatively burn-proof, so add them first. This is almost always followed by onions and tomatoes which require more caramelisation. Fresh spices and powders burn quickly so garlic, ginger and things like turmeric should go in when your onions are ready. Aromatics and spices you add for texture, things like curry leaves, dried chilli or cloves always go in your closing tadka at the end.
Sounding all too complicated? Grab a bottle of Dolly Mumma’s Spiced Ghee and you will be all set for your dahl adventures.
So, which of the dahl recipes will you cook first?
Perzen is an Indian food expert, and she’s also the Chief Eating Officer at Dolly Mumma where she is on a mission to take New Zealanders beyond butter chicken with her ready-to-cook Indian curry pastes, cooking classes, dahl recipes and food stories.