For as long as I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve been meaning to share this recipe.
I even found a draft—dated October 22, 2012—that begins: “Almost as soon as the clock strikes ‘autumn’ in my neck of the woods, I drag out my biggest soup pot and make a huge batch of Indian lentil stew, or ‘Dahl’.”
Three autumns later, I am finally getting around to sharing it.
I’ve made this Dahl at least 153 times since I wrote that draft post and I’m not sure why I picked 154 to finally pull out my camera and jot down the ingredients. I worried about the dish’s photogenicity perhaps: there is nothing particularly stunning about a pile of mushy, albeit delicious, lentils. But more so, I think I dwelled a little too much on its authenticity.
Indian food (or should I say “Indian” food) brings out some sort of latent culinary insecurity for me. While I make Indian food on a regular basis, I’m self-conscious about sharing recipes from a culture that is not my own.
Now, I say that when clearly such insecurities have never stopped me from posting recipes for enchiladas or Moroccan chicken, or from appropriating Vietnamese sandwiches in the form of weeknight rice bowls.
And if you are a regular reader you will know that I did dip one toe into Indian flavours with this recipe for Slow Cooker Butter Chicken Sliders. (Though one commenter who self-identified as “CurryCook” was quick to point out that I erred in suggesting that butter chicken might be traditionally “slow-cooked in a tandoor”. Noted.)
But for the most part I have steered clear of Indian cuisine, out of a fear (legit or not) that I just couldn’t possibly get it right. That even if it tasted delicious and looked beautiful, as those Butter Chicken Sliders definitely do, I was doing some disservice to my readers by delivering them something so contrived. Something so…white?
I raised these concerns with Kiwi, who is not only my chief taste tester, but also an Indian guy. (Yes, yes, I harbour these insecurities notwithstanding that I married into an Indian family.) His view: “if it tastes good, who cares?”
Which makes sense, I guess. And really: who decides what is “authentic” food anyway? Is there an international body of Indian chefs that will sanction me for publishing a recipe that calls for “curry powder,” as this Dahl recipe does? I guess I will find out.
What it might lack in authenticity, this recipe makes up for with all of the important things. It is:
- Simple: it comes together quickly and is made with basic ingredients that you can find in most grocery stores.
- Delicious: rich, layered and complex flavours.
- Make-ahead and freezer friendly: the flavours actually get better when this sits for a couple of days.
- Healthy: full of fibre and healthy fats.
This Dahl is also a particularly good intro to Indian food for family members that might not be so familiar with the flavours. Importantly, the heat part is completely optional. I usually leave it out altogether and let folks add dried chili flakes at the table.
But it’s satisfying and impressive for more experienced folks too. My own (Indian) inlaws gobbled this up and went straight back for seconds. I didn’t tell them about the curry powder.
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
- 1 large or 2 small onions, finely chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, crushed
- A 2 inch piece of gingerroot, finely grated
- 2 tablespoons curry powder (use a good quality one from a brand you trust)
- ½ to 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional)
- 3 cups water
- 1 400 mL (13.5 oz) can of full-fat coconut milk
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 1 796 mL (28 oz) can of whole tomatoes (ideally unsalted)
- 1½ cups dried red lentils
- Juice of half a lemon
- 2 teaspoons garam masala
- Sea salt, to taste
- Fresh cilantro, yogurt, chili flakes and cooked basmati rice or quinoa for serving
- Heat 2 tablespoons of the pot in a heavy-bottomed pot (I use my Le Creuset Dutch Oven) set over medium-high heat. Add the onions and cook until they are soft and starting to brown (5-7 minutes at least). Add the garlic and grated ginger and continue to cook, stirring regularly so the garlic doesn't burn, until the mixture is brown and very fragrant.
- Stir in the curry powder and cayenne (if using) and let them cook for about 30 seconds. Be careful not to let the spices burn.
- Add the water, coconut milk, tomato paste, and the tomatoes and their juices, crushing each tomato between your fingers as you add it to the pot. Stir in the lentils.
- Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and let it simmer until the lentils are very soft and most of the liquid has been absorbed. This will take about 30-40 minutes, but the time will depend on the lentils you use.
- Stir in the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter (and more if you want to make this dahl a little richer), lemon juice, garam masala and salt (I usually add at least 1 teaspoon of sea salt).
- Serve over rice or quinoa, garnished with yogurt, chili flakes and cilantro.
- Leftovers will last for several days in the fridge or can be frozen for a few months at least. The flavour in this dish gets better with age.