In our home, we love a good dal recipe, and Dal Tadka is one that gets made very, very often.
There is absolutely nothing about this dish that you won't love. It's creamy and comforting, and has just that little bit of fire from the garlic and depth from the tomatoes.
Top all of this amazing goodness with a "tadka" or tempering of vegetable oil and mustard, and you have a recipe for comforting deliciousness.
Better, you can have this dish from stove to table in no time at all, especially if you have a handy pressure cooker to cook the heck out of the lentils.
What is "tadka"?
A tadka (tarka or chaunk) in Hindi (called thalippu in Tamil and phodni in Marathi) is the tempering that most Indian recipes almost anywhere in India either start or end with. You heat oil, add a few spices, let the spices roast and bloom and, sometimes, crackle and sputter. Then you add this hot, flavored oil to the rest of the recipe to magnify its deliciousness.
When you heat oil for tadka, make sure it is very hot before adding the mustard seeds in. This is because the seeds won't crackle and sputter in warm oil and will leave a bitter aftertaste. The tadka process should take no more than a minute or two. As soon as the seeds sputter and the spices begin to change color, turn off the heat and add the hot, flavored oil, carefully, to the rest of the recipe.
A tadka can change the flavor profile of your recipe entirely, so it is an extremely valuable tool in a cook's arsenal. In this dal tadka, it really makes the magic happen.
- Tuvar dal or toor dal or split pigeon peas: these are the lentils most commonly used around India to make dal. They are small yellow lentils with a pleasant, nutty flavor.
- Masoor dal or pink lentils: these are perhaps the lentils most people here in the west are familiar with. They are small and pink and cook faster than most other lentils.
- Moong dal or split mung lentils: Moong lentils are also yellow but they are smaller and shinier in appearance than tuvar dal is.
- Turmeric: Most Indian dal recipes include turmeric for health and color, and this one is no exception.
- Vegetable oil: Indians use a range of oils in their cooking depending on where in India they are. For most recipes peanut oil is a safe bet. You can use any other flavorless oil like avocado oil or canola oil.
- Black mustard seeds: A;ways use black mustard seeds in Indian cooking.
- Asafetida or hing (optional): Asafetida might smell funky and look like a strange yellow powder, but it has an amazing flavor that is especially good in dal. Use it, if possible, in this dal tarka.
- Dry red chili peppers: You can buy dry red chili peppers from Indian brands online or at Indian stores. Use Kashmiri red chili peppers, if you can get them. They are mildly hot and add great color to any recipe. You can also use Mexican arbol peppers, but use less because they pack a spicier punch.
- Garlic: Garlic, lots of it, is always wonderful in a dal. Crush and then mince your garlic for most flavor.
- Tomato: To add a welcome, tangy undertone to the dal
- Amchur or mango powder (optional): also for the tangy undertone. Use lemon or lime juice if you can't source it.
- Sugar: Just a tiny bit, for that sweet undertone.
- Salt to taste
- Cilantro: Cilantro is the herb of choice in most Indian recipes, but if you can't stomach it, use mint here.
How to make an authentic dal tadka
Each cook has his or her own special tweaks and twists for a tadka dal. Some use one kind of lentils in the dal, others use two or three or four. Some add tomatoes, others don't. Some finish with a flourish of tangy mango powder or aamchur, others add a tiny amount of sugar for flavor. Some add garlic, some ginger, others both. The variations go on and on.
My version is quite simple, but it's also incredibly delicious. I use a mix of three lentils, but you can just use one or the other, or a mix of two. Remember, there are no hard and fast rules here.
The rules of thumb are also quite simple:
- Make sure you cook the lentils really well. In most dals, with very few exceptions, you want the lentils to become really creamy and not appear distinct. Nothing is less appetizing to me than a thick, gloppy dal with every lentil standing apart. Dal has to be soupy and even thin, unless the recipe specifically says otherwise, (like in a cholar dal or a panchmel dal, where the lentils add texture).
- If you cook dal often, you should invest in a pressure cooker or an Instant Pot, which will make the entire process go by much more smoothly and quickly than cooking dal in a saucepan on the stovetop and give you the right texture.
- For the tadka, always ensure the oil is very hot before you start adding in the spices. Use an oil with a high burning point, like peanut oil or sunflower oil or canola oil or avocado oil. Refined coconut oil, which is flavorless, is acceptable in this recipe. Never, ever use olive oil in Indian cooking. Just don't.
- When you add mustard seeds to the hot oil, they should begin to sputter and crackle instantly. Make sure they do sputter before adding other ingredients, otherwise they will add a bitter note to the dal.
What to serve with the dal tadka
It is also delicious with Jeera Rice.
More Indian dal recipes
- South Indian Green Tomato Dal
- Dhabay ki Daal
- 10-minute Vegan Dal with Basic Tomato Onion Sauce
- Vegan Dal Makhani
- Instant Pot Masoor Dal
- ½ cup tuvar dal (split pigeon peas)
- ½ cup masoor dal (pink lentils)
- ½ cup moong dal (split mung lentils)
- ½ tsp turmeric
- 1 tsp vegetable oil
- 1 tsp mustard seeds
- ¼ tsp asafetida or hing (optional)
- 2 dry red chilies
- 4 large cloves garlic, (crushed into a paste or finely minced)
- 1 large tomato (finely diced)
- 1 tsp sugar
- Salt to taste
- 1 tsp amchur or mango powder (this adds a special flavor, but if you absolutely don't have it, use 2 tbsp lemon juice)
- 2 tbsp cilantro (or mint, minced)
- Combine, wash and cook the lentils with the turmeric, preferably in a pressure cooker. If cooking on a stovetop, cover with an inch of water, bring to a boil, slap on a lid, keep on the lowest setting for the lentils to just simmer, and cook for 30-45 minutes or until the lentils are really soft and easily mushed up. Add more water during the cooking if necessary.
- In a saucepan, heat the oil.
- Add the mustard seeds, red chillies and asafetida.
- When the mustard seeds crackle and sputter, add the garlic and stir-fry until the garlic browns. Don't let it burn-- stir constantly.
- Add the tomato and cook for a few minutes or until the tomato breaks down.
- Add the lentils and water, if needed. You want the dal to be runny but not too watery. This is a matter of personal preference, though, so if you like your dals thick, feel free to use less water. Keep in mind that dals do thicken on standing.
- Bring the lentils to a boil and let them cook for a few minutes.
- Add the sugar and salt and aamchur and stir to mix.
- Add the cilantro, mix well, and turn off the heat.
- Serve hot with rice or parathas or roti.