Simple Lentil Dhal

It is one of the great ironies of the culinary world. Few things on earth are as tasty and hearty as a simple Indian Dhal. But few thing things on earth are also as unappetizing looking as a simple Indian Dhal.

In theory, I knew this. But I was so excited to share this tasty vegetarian recipe with you this week, that I completely forgot about its less than photogenic qualities…until it came time for Dhal’s photoshoot.


I spent an hour on Tuesday trying to take a digital image that captured just how delicious and wonderful this spiced lentil dish is. (An hour that really should have been spent working on my talk for the Diocese of Venice’s Women’s Conference this weekend). And the good Lord as my witness, I failed miserably. I only felt better when I took to the Internet and looked at other people’s pictures.

It’s a universal problem.

Regardless, of how it looks, this Dhal is a house favorite. It’s got layers of spice, tons of protein and fiber, and it’s super easy on the pocketbook. Which is fantastic for me as I am currently on the wedding-induced austerity program. (I’m saving my thoughts on the Wedding Industrial Complex for a post-Lenten, post-book world).


Would children like this recipe? If they like Indian…and can get past the general appearance. So, maybe not. But hey, there’s always the rice that goes with it. And you can serve it with naan bread too, if you like. Kids definitely like naan.

The fiancee loves it though…which is good because I’ve made it twice for him in the last two weeks and sent him home with leftovers for his lunches. Also, as one of my most meat-loving guy friends remarked a year ago, when I served this at a dinner party (with a guest who was fighting cancer and was therefore on a gluten-free vegan diet), “Hey, this tastes like real food! I would eat this even if Nate (the friend with cancer) weren’t here.”

Considering the source, I took that as high praise.


*Note: This recipe includes some spices that you probably will not find at your local Krogers or Publix. But if you like Indian food, I cannot stress enough the wisdom of finding the nearest Indian grocery store and stocking up on these spices and other ones commonly used in Indian cooking. They sell them in bulk, well below grocery store prices, and they last forever. You can also get rice for pennies on the dollar. Alternately, if you don’t have an Indian grocery store anywhere near you or can’t stomach the thought of adding one more store to your next grocery outing, you can order the spices on Amazon. Yay Amazon.

Simple Indian Dhal (Adapted from Suvir Saran’s American Masala)
Serves: 5
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 30-40 minutes



  • 1.5 Tablespoons canola oil
  • 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
  • 3 whole cloves
  • 4 green cardamom pods
  • 1 cup red or green lentils, picked over, washed and drained
  • 1/2 teaspoon turmeric
  • 1/8 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 4 cups cold water
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt (or to taste)

Tempering Oil

  • 1 Tablespoon canola oil
  • 1/2 onion, finely chopped
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 inches fresh ginger, minced
  • 2 jalapeno peppers, seeded and minced

For Serving

  • 4 cups cooked Jasmine or Basmati Rice
  • 1/4-1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional)
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
  • Juice of 1/2 lemon


  1. Chop your onion and mince the garlic, ginger, and jalapenos, then set aside.
  2. Cook the rice on the stove or in a rice cooker. Keep warm.
  3. While the rice cooks, heat 1.5 T. oil in a large saucepan with a lid.
  4. Add the cumin, cloves, and cardamom. Cook, stirring, until the cumin turns a golden brown color (about 1 minute).
  5. Add the lentils, turmeric, water, cinnamon, and salt. Bring to a boil and skim froth well. Turn down the heat and simmer, covered, until the lentils are soft and easily broken up by a whisk. (20 to 30 minutes depending on which lentils you use. Red take less time; green take more.)
  6. Using a whisk,  break up the lentils into a puree.
  7. During the last 5 minutes that the lentils are cooking, prepare the tempering oil. Start by heating the remaining canola oil in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the onion and cook until golden and slightly brown (4 to 5 minutes).
  8. Add the garlic, ginger, and jalapenos and cook just enough to mellow the flavor of all three—about 30 seconds.
  9. Stir half of the tempering oil into the dhal along with half the cilantro, all the lemon juice, and the cayenne pepper (if you want a little more heat). Simmer for 5 minutes. Add the remaining tempering oil, and serve over rice. Sprinkle with remaining cilantro.


  1. The dhal, by itself, should taste just a little too salty. This will help it hold its flavor once you mix it with the rice.
  2. This recipe improves with time, so feel free to make the dhal earlier in the day (or even the night before) and reheat it at dinner time. I regularly make a double batch, so there are plenty of leftovers for me to live off for the week.
  3. If you want it a little hotter (as opposed to spicier), leave some or all of the seeds in the jalapeno. I do this for myself, because I really like heat, but not when I’m serving this to others.
  4. The original recipe calls for canola oil, but when I haven’t had that on hand I’ve also used olive oil or ghee. It’s been great everytime.
  5. Using the seeds and pods (as opposed to the ground up versions of the spices) makes a huge difference to this recipe. You can leave them out if you want (just skipping that part of the recipe altogether and going straight to boiling the lentils in the water with turmeric, cinnamon, and salt), but the results won’t be nearly so good. I know. I have tried.
  6. You can serve this with naan and roasted cauliflower seasoned with curry, cumin, and coriander. (For one head of chopped cauliflower, I use about 2 T. curry, 2 T. cumin, 1 t. coriander, 1 t. salt, 4 cloves crushed garlic, and 2 T. oil. Then roast for 35-40 minutes at 400).

9 thoughts on “Simple Lentil Dhal

  1. AnneMarie says:

    That actually looks fairly delicious! I think the cilantro garnish definitely helps the appearance. Without it, the dhal would probably look pretty gross. But gross-looking foods can be amazing-like split pea soup! I’ve always thought that the color of that soup is disgusting, but it’s one of my favorite soups, hands-down 🙂

  2. Margo, Thrift at Home says:

    haha, I’ve given up on trying to make lentils look good in a photo! But we do love them at our house. Dhal is a staple for us, although my recipe is different from yours and now I see that I’ve never blogged it before (probably that photo problem). And my kids do really like it. I almost always have a meal’s worth in the freezer for busy days.

  3. octoberrose says:

    Have you tried making this using ground cumin and cardamom (as opposed to the pods and seeds)? I ask because that’s what I have! 🙂 I imagine it would at least taste better than leaving them out altogether, right?

    • Emily says:

      I have, and it’s okay, but it’s not the same dish. The seeds impart an entirely different flavor, plus the proportions aren’t an easy switch. Indian cooking is all about the right layering of spices at the right time. Since I started cooking Indian with the proper spices (and not the easy substitutes), my Indian dishes went from “close but no cigar” to authentic restaurant quality. If you don’t have an Indian grocery store near you, just go on Amazon and spend $10 on spices that will last you through dozens and dozens of dishes. It is extremely cost effective and makes all the difference.

    • Emily says:

      I should add, that for years, when cooking Indian, I just stuck with recipes that allowed me to use the ground spices in the grocery store. I was so intimidated by cooking with unfamiliar spices, and just didn’t want to bother with going into unfamiliar grocery store territory. The dishes themselves were tasty, but I never could figure out why nothing ever tasted like it did in an Indian restaurant. Then, one day, I decided I needed to suck it up and give something more “complex” a try.” I found a recipe that looked good, went to one of the many Indian grocery stores in Pittsburgh, and bought a bunch of exotic spices. Which were super cheap, because well, I don’t know why. But they’re always super cheap in Indian grocery stores. What I discovered, once I finally had those spices on hand, was how the seemingly complex recipes weren’t complex at all. They were easy, cheap, and using the wrong spices was why I never could get my dishes to really taste authentic. Anyhow, of course, you can use whatever spices you want when you cook it at home. It will be fine. But, if you’re aiming for something authentic, I just want to encourage you (and anyone really interested in cooking Indian) to buy the seeds. Because they make food awesome. 🙂

  4. Apple Hill Cottage says:

    The first time I had dhal was at a vegetarian college protest against the military industrial complex messing with our food. Or something like that. It was awful. No spice, and the texture was… ugh. Luckily I’ve had it since and it was much better. I’m trying it tonight for a meatless Friday with real spice seeds… And your pics are great — we are always hardest on our own selves…
    Wedding Industrial complex — ha ha — can’t wait to read it. Best wishes!

  5. fairweatherpaddler says:

    Looks great. When I cook it here, it’s never been quite right. But think I shall take you up on your tip and get more whole spices. I have whole cardamon pods and use them in a banana upside down cake. And they are pretty awesome in a hot chocolate too.

  6. Theresa says:

    I always love an excuse to head out to the Indian store. It’s an excellent time to stock up on tea as well as spices 🙂

    I never had Dahl before so had no idea what this “should” taste like, but it was delish!! Hubby would have given 2 thumbs up if he hadn’t been so busy eating.

    I ended up making it a little to hot for me, so I mixed in a bit of plain yogurt which cooled it down perfectly and still tickled my taste buds.

    Thanks so much for sharing!!!

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