Bengali tarka dal

This recipe for rich, golden yellow tarka dal (a kind of lentil soup traditionally eaten with rice) is making a comeback in honour of National Curry Week. It’s become something of a party piece for me, which is a massive cheat because it’s so ludicrously easy to make. But it’s one my most popular recipes, and I’ve yet to meet someone who’s said they didn’t like it (at least to my face, that is).

There was a time in my life when I made this dal nearly every day. It became a bit of a ritual. Washing the red lentils, feeling them go from smooth to sticky under the water. Skimming off the starch as the water boiled. Adding the ground spices and the whole spices and the pastes one by one, each time trying to find the perfect, magical order. Sometimes I’d be doing it by candle light if the loadshedding was bad. Often the heat from my little one-ring burner would be too much, forcing me to seek refuge on the roof while the lentils bubbled away.

Dal is food of the gods. Across much of South Asia, dal bhat (or boiled rice with lentils) is a staple meal, and for poor people, dal is often the only source of protein they can afford. It’s healthy, cheap and wonderfully versatile. I’ve made this recipe with a few handfuls of spinach chucked in at the last minute, with fresh tomatoes sliced into it, or with chopped boiled potatoes and boiled eggs (weird, I know, but that’s Bangladesh for you!). You can up the amount if chilli, or leave it out if you’re after something more soothing. The tempering is crucial, though, to giving the dal texture and flavour.

I can’t attest much to the authenticity of this Bengali dal recipe, as it’s evolved to become my own over the years. But I did learn it from my neighbour and acting mother-in-Bangladesh, Meena, so there must be an element of authenticity to it…  Eat it as a soup with flatbread, or on the side of any curry. It goes really well with lamb biryani or apricot and chicken curry.

Bengali tarka dal

Bengali tarka dal


Serves: 6

Time needed: 30-40 minutes

What you need

1 cup red lentils (also known as masoor dal)

2 tsp garlic paste (or a few minced cloves of garlic)

1 tsp ginger paste (or a 2.5 in piece of ginger, crushed in a pestle and mortar)

½  tsp turmeric

1 tsp garam masala

4 cloves

4 cardamom pods

1 stick cinnamon stick (2.5 inches)

1 dried red chilli

1 ½ tsp salt

For the tarka

2 tsp cumin seeds

1 onion, thinly sliced

Dal cooking

Dal cooking

How to make it

  1. Start off by washing the lentils. You can do this in a sieve under running water, or by placing it in a pan and swilling it in fresh water, repeating until the water runs clear.
  2. Then, place the lentils in the plan and cover with twice the amount of water (you’ll probably need to add more as you go along, but see how it goes). Bring the water to the boil, then reduce to a simmer. If scum starts to develop, use a spoon to skim it off and discard, then put one dessertspoon of oil into the water to stop it foaming up.
  3. Add the whole spices now, then turn down the heat and simmer for 10-15 minutes until the lentils are soft.
  4. Once the lentils are cooked, add the ginger and garlic pastes, the ground spices and the salt. Give the mixture a stir and allow to bubble for another few minutes, adding more water as necessary to keep the texture soupy.
  5. Taste the dahl at this point, to see if it needs any more salt, then turn the heat right down.
  6. Now move on to the tarka. Take a small frying pan and heat a spoonful of oil over a medium heat. Add the cumin seeds. As soon as they start to pop, add the onion and turn down the heat. Stir carefully, and cover the pan. The aim here is to get the onion caramelised and golden brown, which takes about 10 minutes. Every 2-3 minutes, remove the lid and give the mix a stir, then recover.
  7. Once the onions are nicely crisped up, remove the pan from the heat. Pour carefully into the dahl and stir through. Serve and enjoy!

More recipes for dal