Almost every Indian will have some memory of ‘dal chawal‘ at home (i.e. lentil rice). Lentils form the basis for many Indian vegetarian dishes, and are often the main source of protein as well. There’s so many different types of lentils, and many of them can be used to make this dal. Read on to find out about the types of lentils and the ‘tadka‘ (i.e. tempering) process.
The post contains helpful tips and tricks to make sure you’re successful in your first attempt. But if you’re in a rush, please use the link above to jump to the recipe card at the end!
🍲 What is dal tadka?
Dal refers to lentils. Tadka means “tempering” (infusing fat, typically oil or ghee, with spices and aromatics). This involves heating oil or ghee, adding spices like cumin seeds, dried red chili peppers, and curry leaves to infuse flavors into the oil. This flavored oil is poured on top of the completed dish.
Restaurant style dal tadka also often involves a ‘dhungar‘ process (which adds a smoky note by using charcoal). However, most home recipes are quite simple, and do not need this step to pack a punch with flavors.
My recipe is a simple yellow dal recipe. It uses toor dal + tomatoes, onions, Thai green chili peppers and red chili powder for the base. I use ghee, mustard seeds, cumin seeds and red chili powder for the tadka (i.e. tempering). I’ve used dry red chilis as well but you can omit this too.
📋 Differences in lentils
This recipe uses traditional toor dal (i.e. split yellow pigeon peas). I highly recommend stocking up on this one since it’s the backbone of most lentil dishes (especially in South India). Also called arhar, tuvar and togare bele.
Some recipes will use masoor dal (Indian red lentils) or chana dal (dry, split brown chickpeas) or moong dal (split green gram). You’ll be able to find any of these on Amazon, or at Indian grocery stores. In a pinch, you can use any dried red lentils from the grocery store (check cook times on packaging!).
Two things to remember about lentils:
- When they are fresh, they take ~20 – 45 minutes to cook stove-top. Moong dal takes 20 minutes, toor dal about 30 minutes, and masoor dal takes about 45 minutes. In a pressure cooker or an Instant Pot, all the lentils take roughly 8-9 minutes. With a pressure cooker, wait 3 whistles for moong dal, 5 for toor, and 7 for masoor.
- The older they are, the longer they take to cook. If you cook to directions, and find your lentils are not soft? Just cook them a bit longer (add boiling hot water to pot if needed, you can drain later).
📖 How do you make dal tadka?
Regardless of the lentil, there are three steps for making dal tadka. This includes cooking the lentils, making the base, and then adding the tadka.
Cook the lentils until they’re tender
Sift through lentils to remove small particles or stones (it’s unlikely you’ll find any but good to make sure!). Then, measure lentils, rinse them thoroughly until the rinsed water runs mostly clear (typically, twice, but sometimes it can take a couple of tries)
Once lentils are clean, add them to a fresh pot of water. Then, close the lid and bring to a boil. If it foams, skim it off, turn down the stove to a simmer and cook until tender (30 – 45 minutes depending on type and age of lentil).
When it’s done cooking, lentils should be tender. If they look too or feel too “thick”, meaning it’s cooked through but not fluid, add a bit of water (~1/4th to 1/2 cup does the trick). Set this aside.
For Instant Pot or a pressure cooker, you only need 2.5 cups of water. You also don’t need to soak the lentils beforehand if you’re going this route. With a pressure cooker, wait for 7 to 8 whistles. With an Instant Pot, cook on high pressure for 10 minutes. Allow natural pressure release for 10 minutes, and then use manual valve to release the rest.
Making the base for dal
Add ghee to the same pan. Add cumin seeds and toast them quickly until fragrant. Fry onions and green chili peppers (I buy Thai chili, but Serrano peppers work too – make sure to chop them, and then seed them if you don’t want the full spice hit). You could also add garlic at the end of this stage if you wish but this is optional. Then, add the tomatoes, some coriander powder, Kashmiri red chili powder, and cilantro. Mix the spices well and fry until soft (about 5-8 minutes). If you’re vegan, you can use avocado oil in place of the ghee. Paprika works well as a substitute too.
Add cooked lentils (along with water if you think it’s too “thick”). Let it cook on a simmer for 3 to 5 minutes. While the dal is cooking, make the tadka!
Adding tadka, i.e. tempering with spices and aromatics
I typically use ghee to temper since it really brings out the flavors. However, avocado oil works just as well if you’re vegan. The steps are different for fresh spices vs. ground spices.
If you’re using fresh spices, heat the oil or ghee first. Then, add mustard seeds, and cumin seeds and Indian dried red chili if you’re using that. Then, add the red chili powder. Saute together and set aside.
If you’re using ground spices, heat the oil or ghee. Then, add mustard seeds, and all ground spices together – cumin, and chili powder. Cook until this is thick and saucy. When the base is done cooking, add the tadka on top of it and mix well. Garnish with fresh cilantro and serve hot!
🥣 Storage & serving suggestions
I love to eat this dal tadka with either rice (like my delicious, cumin infused rice, i.e. jeera rice) or with a simple flatbread like roti or naan.
You can store the dal in the fridge in an airtight container for up to 5-6 days. Reheat only the portion you want to eat, and not the whole container. If you want to freeze it, portion into airtight containers and pop in the freezer. When ready to eat, just thaw first for 30 minutes. Then, heat on stove top or microwave until its piping hot, and enjoy! It saves for up to 3 months!
Simple Indian Dal Tadka
For making lentils:
- 1 cup toor dal split yellow pigeon peas – substitute with moong dal or masoor dal as needed
- 1 tsp turmeric
- 4 cups water for stove top, use 2.5 cups for Instant Pot or pressure cooker
For making dal base:
- 1 tsp ghee
- 1 tsp cumin seeds
- 2 tomato medium, chopped
- 1/2 onion medium, chopped
- 1-2 Thai green chili pepper Thai chili preferred, use Serrano otherwise
- 1/4 tsp Kashmiri red chili powder
- 1 tsp coriander powder
- 1 tsp cumin powder
- 1.5 tsp salt
- 2 tbsp cilantro chopped
For the the tadka, i.e. tempering:
- 1 tbsp ghee
- 1 tsp mustard seeds
- 1 tsp cumin seeds
- 2-3 dried Indian red chili peppers optional
- 1/4 tsp Kashmiri red chili powder substitute with paprika
Make the lentils:
- Rinse and clean lentils thoroughly, a couple of times typically does the trick – soak in water for 15 mins
- Drain lentils, add water and turmeric – cover and bring to boil ( 2-3 mins)
- When water starts bubbling vigorously, reduce heat to a simmer (low to medium) for 30 minutes – if lentils feel hard, cook for 5 more minutes
- Final product should be soft, with some liquid left – if there's a ton of additional liquid, drain into a cup and save some for later (for when you make the dal base)
Make the dal base:
- 5 mins before lentils are cooked, heat ghee in a pan and add cumin seeds – toast for a minute
- Add chopped onions, green chili – saute until fragrant (~3 min)
- Add tomatoes and deglaze pan (i.e. crush tomatoes to release juices)
- Add cumin powder, coriander powder, chili powder and salt and mix well – this is the dal base and cook together for 3 to 5 minutes (paprika works here too)
- Add dal base to the lentils and let it cook, covered for 5 minutes – add up to half a cup of reserved water to get dal to your desired consistency
Make the tadka:
- While the lentils are cooking, prepare the tadka in the same pan you used for the dal base: add ghee, and let it melt
- Once ghee has melted, add mustard and cumin seeds – let it splutter
- Add dried red chili (optional) + red chili powder and mix (~30 seconds)
- Pour tadka over cooked dal, garnish with chopped cilantro and serve hot
- You’ll need both a pot and a pan for this recipe – use the pan for making the dal base and the tempering
- You can use toor, moong or masoor to make dal tadka. Check the post for changes in cooking times for each of those lentils.
- If you’re using a pressure cooker or an Instant Pot, total time is closer to 30 minutes. For detailed instructions, please check the post for cook times
- While tempering: if you use raw spices, add them first to the ghee or avocado oil. If you’re using ground spices, add them together and cook for a short amount to prevent burning. Check out the post for detailed explanation!
The information shown is an estimate provided by an online nutrition calculator. It should not be considered a substitute for a professional nutritionist’s advice.
If you like this, don’t forget to check out my other Indian recipes: