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Tarka Dhal

Tarka Dhal

Dhal is one of my very favourite Indian foods. It’s both simple and honest, not to mention so pleasantly frugal that one could it all day every day and never notice it make a dent in one’s finances. To the uninitiated, dhal may at first appear sloppy and unappealing – rather like porridge – but once you’ve had a chance to experience its dense and satisfying texture your views on Indian cuisine will be forever enhanced.

Though my knowledge of Indian food is relatively good, it has many subtleties and complexities that I don’t yet know of. So varied is Indian cuisine and so numerous are its facets that I think it would be impossible to pick them all up in a lifetime. Take dhal, for instance; everyone knows what dhal is, but most don’t cook it properly. In India dhal would almost always have something known as ‘tarka’ added to it just before serving.

Tarka Dhal

A mixture of spices, chilli and well-cooked onion, tarka serves to provide dhal with a last-minute lift and boost of flavour. I’d used this process before (see my fragrant dhal recipe), but it wasn’t until Rick Stein showed me the light that I properly understood the significance of tarka. It truly is what brings the dish alive.

Tarka Dhal

Serves 2-4


• 150g (yellow dried split peas)

• 800ml water

• 1 onion, very finely sliced

• 2 tsp whole cumin seeds

• 1 tsp whole coriander seeds

• 3-4 cardamom pods

• 3 fresh green chillies, roughly chopped

• 1 heaped tsp garam masala

• 1 heaped tsp mild or hot chilli powder

• Oil

• Salt and pepper


1. Having soaked your peas overnight, rinse them and add to a pan of water. Bring to the boil and cook rapidly for 30-40 minutes. Meanwhile, cook your onion in a hearty drizzle of oil along with the whole spices and chillies, until golden brown.

Tarka Dhal

2. Once the peas have softened and broken down a little (with the aid of your best wooden spoon) until they resemble a relatively thick porridge, add the garam masala, chilli powder salt and pepper. Tip in most of the tarka (onions and spices), but reserve a little for decoration and serve.

Tarka Dhal

Cost: Dhal will always make an exceedingly cheap meal – dried pulses are just about the most economical food stuff out there and make for great eating. Indeed, this entire, nourishing dhal should set you back no more than 60p!

48 replies on “Tarka Dhal”

What if you forget to soak them overnight? Is it still possible to cook them without soaking? Any idea how long it takes?

I ask because I was all set tonight to make my favorite dhal with red split lentils, which do not need soaking, but discovered I didn’t have enough! So, to the yellow split peas, but don’t use them much so not too familiar with whether they can be cooked if they haven’t soaked. Asking the internets now.

I taught both of my adult daughters how to cook beans and lentils because they both must be careful with their finances. But legumes are so good!!! And yours look perfect!

Damn, but I love dhal. So simple, but so tasty. I needed a new dish to add to my repertoire. This does the trick. Thanks so much!

P.S. as a follow-on recipe, ever considered “frugalizing” Mesir Wat or Shiro Wat? That’s the food of the gods, but the spices are complicated to prep 🙁

When I cook Indian food (which is becoming more frequent)–I use UK recipes rather than US ones—they seem more authentic.
So I must ask–when you say “green chilies” what type do you use?

Looks good! BTW yellow split peas as with red lentils and pigeon peas don’t need that extra soak and cook very well in a pressure cooker or in a pan longer if you have the patience.

Tarka dhal is one of the yummiest dishes we have and as an Indian, this recipe of yours totally rocks!l! :D. And you can pair it with anything – naan or rice 😀 Lovely Pictures! 😀

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