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The ultimate guide to cooking lentils & making the perfect dhal

The ultimate guide to cooking lentils & making the perfect dhal

Throughout May we will be donating 50p from every Tarka Dhal Curry Pack sold to our local Mind (the mental health charity) branches.

Lentils are to Indians like pasta is to Italians, very important to say the least. They feature on almost every Indian table, often more than once a day. There is an amazing variety of dhals and lentil dishes eaten in homes all across India.

For vegetarians, lentils are a valuable source of complex protein and, when combined with some grains and cereals like rice or chapatis, the protein content can be as high as, or even higher than, a steak dinner.

Indian food is all about variety and dhals give a great contrast to other rich Indian dishes. There really is no end to how many different ways there are to cook the humble lentil. Vegetarian or not, they really are an essential part of any Indian meal.

Our signature lentil dish, the Tarka Dhal, draws from many different influences. Warming spices from the North coupled with a mixture of lentils from the South. It is one of Rafi’s recipes that hasn’t changed at all over the years. It was just right from the beginning! Perfect with any of our curries or just on its own with Naan or Chapatis.

'Tarka' translates to 'tempering'. It is a method widely used in Indian cuisine, in which whole or ground spices are heated in hot oil or ghee and the mixture is added to a dish. Hot fat has an amazing ability to extract and retain the essence, aroma and flavour of spices and herbs and then carry this essence with it when it is added to a dish.

There are many different ways in which this process is used. It can be done at the beginning, before the lentils are added or as a final flourish at the end, to give a wonderful aroma to the dish. Whichever way round, it is a vital part of dhal cooking.

Tarka Tips For Delightful Dhal

Here are a few things to remember when using this technique.

  • Always use neutral oil like sunflower, vegetable or coconut oil. These perform much better at high temperatures which helps to impart the flavours.
  • Make sure your oil is nice and hot before adding spices, then turn to a medium heat once they are in the pan.
  • If you are adding fresh ingredients make sure they go in after the spices have been fried.
  • The other thing to remember is always to try and do it just before serving (if it is a final Tarka), as the flavours will be much stronger.
  • A Tarka will splutter a lot when it is added to cooked lentils, so make sure you have a lid nearby to cover it quickly. This will also retain the aromas and flavours.

We have also gathered some invaluable tips on the dhal cooking process. Combine these with the Tarka techniques and you’re on to a winner!

  • Always add salt once lentils are cooked otherwise they will take much longer to soften.
  • Don’t be tempted to peek in the pan! Always keep the lid on for the entire cooking time.
  • Mashing the lentils once cooked will give your dhal a smooth, silky texture; this is all about personal taste.
  • Tinned tomatoes can be added to the lentils once cooked for a richer dhal with more body. This is a good idea if the dhal is to be eaten on its own; a plain dhal works better with other dishes.
  • Adding vegetables like carrots and pepper to your lentils while they are cooking can give your finished dhal a more robust texture if mashed coarsely
  • Try adding half a lemon to your lentils while they are cooking. This will give the finished dish a fresh tangy finish.
  • Dhals love garnishes like fresh herbs, fresh lemon, fresh tomatoes, finely sliced onions, or even cream.

Now you’ve got the skills here are 3 excellent Tarka Dhal variations: Gujarati Style Dhal, South Indian Style Dhal and North Indian Style Dhal. If you have any variations of your own, contact us via Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, we would love to hear them!