A simple but delicious and spicy urad dal or black lentil dahl is the perfect dish to spice up a weeknight or weekend dinner. Serve with brown rice or white rice and a simple vegetable stir-fry for a nutritious meal that — warning — may lead to everyone licking their plates.
In India’s multifarious regional cuisines, each ingredient chosen plays an important and intricate role in creating the complexity of any given dish.
Take dal, for instance. There are a thousand and more ways to make a dal, and the diversity of flavor in each dal recipe begins, at the most basic level, with the lentil used.
Most Indian cooks have a half a dozen or so lentils in their pantry, give or take a couple, each with a distinct flavor and texture. But the legumes you’ll find featured most commonly in dal recipes (apart from beans) are chana dal (Bengal gram dal), tuvar dal (pigeon peas or yellow split peas), masoor dal (pink lentils), urad dal (black lentils) and moong dal (green gram dal).
While it would be safe to say that Indians everywhere incorporate a variety of lentils into their food, it is also true that certain regions show stronger preferences for certain lentils. For instance:
- In Maharashtra, the state where I grew up, we’d usually make our dals with tuvar dal.
- Bengalis tend to use chana dal more frequently, in recipes like the delicious Cholar Dal.
- Tamilians use moong dal, masoor dal and tuvar dal to vary the flavors and textures in the family of south Indian dals called sambars and kootus, and urad dal in idlis and dosas.
- North Indians tend to use urad dal to make their popular dals like Dal Makhani and Maa ki Dal.
The reason specific lentils are used in specific dals is because the lentil you use makes all the difference to the flavor and texture of the dal. So you can’t just swap out your tuvar dal in a sambar for urad dal and expect to get a sambar. Or you can’t replace the urad in a dal makhani with tuvar and expect a dal makhani. You get my drift?
That said, each dal recipe, no matter what it’s called, has some common denominators: most start with boiling the lentils to tenderness (I do this in a pressure cooker although sometimes on the stovetop or in the microwave), and almost any dal incorporates a tempering, or tadka, the process of heating oil and adding a few spices to it, like mustard or cumin seeds or garlic or curry leaves. The flavors from these seeds and herbs seep into the oil and the tempered oil gives the dal its crowning dash of flavor.
For the Spicy Urad Dal or Black Lentil Dal recipe I am sharing with you today I, obviously, used urad dal. This is a lentil with a mildly bitter flavor and a slightly slippery texture that tends to cook up thick and that makes it great as a binding agent in dishes like idlis and dosas.
Think of this recipe almost as a quickie version of a dal makhani, but just as tasty. The urad is combined with herbs like ginger and garlic and cayenne or paprika, and you smooth out all the flavors at the end with a dollop of vegan butter.
I like blending half of the cooked dal before I add it to the pot, because it makes the dal really creamy, which I love. You can skip this step, but why would you?
Ingredients for the dal:
- Urad dal or black lentils
- Cayenne or paprika
- Vegetable oil
- Kasoori methi (dry fenugreek leaves), optional
Tips on making the urad dal:
- Urad dal is sold in different forms in Indian stores or online. You have the split white lentil that’s most commonly available and used, and this works fine in this recipe. You have urad gota, which is the whole, round lentil, not split, that makes a good substitute. You also have the split lentil with the black skin still on (urad dal chilka), which is the kind I used here. And you have the whole, unsplit lentil with the black skin on. Confused? Yep, but I’ll make it simple for you: you can use any of these in this dal recipe and you’ll get the same result. Split lentils will cook faster, so if you haven’t already bought your lentils, try and buy these. I like using the ones with their skins on because why not?
- Cook your lentils until they are very tender. The best way to do this is in a pressure cooker or Instant Pot, and these will save you some time. But if you don’t have either, don’t lose heart. Add all the ingredients in step 1 to a pot, cover the lentils with at least an inch of water, bring to a boil, turn the heat to a simmer, cover and cook for at least 20-30 minutes or until the lentils are soft. Then proceed with the rest of the recipe.
- I add a soupçon of sugar to this recipe, which is a common enough technique when making Indian recipes, because we Indian cooks like to balance out flavors. There’s spicy, tangy, salty and bitter (from the dal and kasoori methi) in this recipe, and a teaspoon of sugar adds depth and rounds out the flavors nicely, so use it unless you absolutely will not use sugar.
What to serve with the dal?
I serve this dal usually with brown rice (white rice works just as well) and with a simple stir-fry recipe or sabzi.
You can also serve it with roti or garlic naan for an even more special and fabulous meal.
Looking for more vegan dal recipes?
Spicy Urad Dal (Black Lentil Dal) Recipe
Nut-Free | Gluten-Free | Soy-Free
Spicy Urad Dal
- 1 cup urad dal (black lentil dal)
- 1 inch ginger root (grated)
- 1/2 tsp turmeric
- 1 tsp cayenne (or paprika for less heat)
- 1 tbsp vegetable oil
- 10 cloves garlic (minced or grated)
- 3 medium tomatoes (pureed. Canned puree is fine too, use 1 cup)
- 1 to 2 tsp garam masala
- 2 tbsp vegan butter
- 1 tbsp kasoori methi (optional)
- 1 tsp sugar (optional, but adds a bit more depth. You won't taste the sugar)
- 2 tbsp cilantro (chopped)
- Cook or pressure-cook the dal along with the ginger, cayenne or paprika and turmeric until tender and mushy. If you want a creamy dal, blend half the cooked dal into a smooth puree and add back to the remaining dal.
- Heat the oil in a large saucepan
- Add the garlic and stir quickly for about a minute. Add the tomatoes and cook until the puree darkens, about five minutes.
- Add the cooked urad dal, garam masala powder (use more or less based on your preference and the brand you have) and the kasoori methi (crush it between your fingers as you add it to the pot). Stir to mix.
- Add water or vegetable stock if the dal is too thick. Bring the dal to a boil and simmer over medium-low heat for 10 minutes.
- Stir in the vegan butter and add chopped coriander leaves. Turn off the heat.
- Serve hot with rice or rotis.