Dal – also known as Dhal – is one of my favourite comforting winter meals. On a cold evening when you’ve got wet through on the walk home and don’t feel like leaving the house again, it is enormously reassuring to find that there’s a packet of red split lentils and some spices in the press and a few onions and garlic looking lonely in the vegetable rack. There are as many recipes for dal as there are vegetarians in the world so if you don’t have the exact ingredients mentioned below, don’t worry. The split lentils, onions and garlic are absolutes here but you can play around with all the rest.
If you don’t have the coconut milk – admittedly the one ingredient that drew me to this particular recipe in the first place – you could fry some chopped onions, chilli and sliced garlic with cumin, turmeric and coriander, add the lentils and some stock or water and simmer until they turn sludgy. It was Nigel Slater and his The 30-Minute Cook that taught me about the wonderful propensity that red split lentils have to turn into delicious mush with about twenty minutes cooking and some vigorous stirring with a wooden spoon. I’ve never looked back.
If you don’t add the onions and garlic to the lentils while they are cooking, you can make – as in the recipe below – a spiced butter, known in India as baghar or tadka, to perfume and flavour the dal. Clarified Indian butter – ghee – would be ideal but, in its absence, I normally use a mixture of vegetable oil and butter. In her Easy Entertaining, Darina uses all vegetable oil which is perfectly acceptable but I have to admit loving the sweet savoury-ness of butter with the earthy lentils. Even though it may be winter outside, the weather lifts when you’re eating this spicy dish. Especially if you eat it with naan breads that you’ve made yourself…
Red split lentils – 500g
Coconut milk – 1 x 450ml tin
Water – 450ml
Ground turmeric – 1½ teaspoons
Lemon juice – 1½ tablespoons
Garam Masala – 1½ teaspoons
Salt – 1½ teaspoons
Sunflower oil – 1 tablespoon
Butter – 1 tablespoon
Onion – 1, sliced
Garlic – 2 cloves, sliced
Cumin seeds – 1½ teaspoons
Cayenne pepper – 1½ teaspoons
Ground coriander – 1½ teaspoons
Fresh coriander – a scant handful of chopped leaves
Rinse the lentils then add them to a saucepan with the coconut milk, water and tumeric. Bring to the boil and simmer for about 20 minutes until the lentils are soft and tender, almost mushy. Take off the heat and add the lemon juice, salt and Garam Masala.
Meanwhile, heat the oil, add the onion slices and fry gently until softened and starting to turn brown. Add the cumin seeds and fry for another two minutes. turn off the heat, add the cayenne and coriander and mix well before pouring over the dal. Sprinkle with coriander leaves and serve with basmati rice.
Adapted from Easy Entertaining by Darina Allen.