This red lentil dal has a depth of flavor that belies its simplicity. It’s perfect for a weeknight meal because it can be on the table in less than half an hour, or however long it takes you for your rice accompaniment to cook. Red lentils cook up very quickly.
Also, you can make it with things you probably have in your pantry. Actually, I take that back, because anytime I read a recipe that the author boasts can be made with things you already have in your pantry, it inevitably contains red bell peppers or frozen corn or celery seed or something that I decidedly don’t have on hand. What I will say is that, if you keep red lentils and a decent curry powder on hand, and you have a couple of plain yellow onions on hand at all times like any home cook should, you’ll be able to use this as a tasty fallback dish when your refrigerator is looking bare. So go out and get yourself a big bag of red lentils. Red lentils keep for a very long time.
You’ll notice that I said “curry powder.” CURRY POWDER! The horror. Curry powder gets a bad rap, but really it is A-OK. Don’t let people tell you that nobody uses curry powder or pre-mixed spice blends in India—they do. But you do have to make sure to get a good one. No standard grocery store bottled curry powder made up of mostly turmeric and anti-caking agent.
You have a few options. If your health food store has a good bulk curry powder, by all means, use it—but shy away from anything that’s too bright orange, as that means turmeric is the main ingredient. Turmeric is pretty bitter and a curry powder that’s comprised mostly of it will make your dal taste flat.
A second option, and the one I use most often, is to get a curry powder from your local Indian grocery. (Don’t assume your area doesn’t have one—any area with a significant population of Indian immigrants probably will, even in the suburban Midwest. Look around; you might be surprised.) The proprietors of your Indian grocery may make and package their own delicious curry powders, or, if you ask, they may carry a brand to recommend to you. I get a wonderful curry powder at India4U here in Portland. Indian groceries also carry a lot of other fun things, like black chickpeas and nigella seeds and yummy Indian snack mixes. Go! Look around! Try something new!
The third option is to make the curry powder yourself. This isn’t as arduous as it sounds; you can make it in big batches and store for a long time. It will store for longer than people say it will. If you’d like to try this out, I recommend tracking down one of Madhur Jaffrey’s recipes; she will never steer you wrong. But you certainly don’t need to make your own, as some will insist you do, for your dals or curries to be tasty.
A final note. This recipe uses ghee as the fat. If you’re vegan or highly allergic to dairy, by all means, use oil instead (preferably virgin coconut oil, as it’s got the best flavor for Indian dishes.) But if not, I really encourage you to use the ghee. It adds a nutty, caramelized flavor that translates into MAXIMUM GOODNESS. I could not believe how much my Indian food improved when I started cooking everything in ghee.
Try it. You will swoon.
My favorite vegetable to serve alongside this dal is collards cooked with panch phoron a la Barbara. Or, you could stir a little chopped spinach or chard in at the end for a lazy and easy way to get in some greens.
Everyday Red Lentil Dal
2 tablespoons ghee
1 yellow onion, sliced
3 cloves garlic, minced
A piece of ginger the size of your thumb, peeled and minced
2 tablespoons curry powder
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
1 teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon cayenne (or more to your taste)
3/4 cup red lentils
4 cups vegetable broth or water
The juice of 1/2 a lemon
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1. In a medium saucepan, melt ghee over medium heat. When hot, add onions. Stir to coat onions with ghee and turn heat to medium-low. Allow onions to brown slowly, turning heat down further if needed, until they begin to turn a deep reddish-brown, about ten minutes.
2. Add minced garlic and ginger. Mix well and sauté for a few minutes until garlic and ginger are fragrant and softened.
3. Add curry powder, mustard seeds, cumin, and cayenne to the pan. Stir and mix well with vegetables. Sauté for about a minute to toast spices.
4. Add lentils and vegetable broth or water and bring to a simmer, stirring occasionally, until the red lentils are softened and have fallen apart. Stir in lemon juice, salt and pepper to taste, and serve hot over rice or with flatbread.