When most people think of Indian dal, this red lentil dal in a rich tomato sauce is the one. It’s everything you want in a curry - flavorful and aromatic, with a comforting texture.
Sound appealing? Then you must try it. There is nothing else that compares with a comforting thick lentil soup served with rice, a vegetable side, and an optional flatbread, such as roti or naan.
What is red lentil?
Red lentils are:
- a type of pulse or legume
- light red or pink in color
- hulled and split
Most importantly, red lentils cook quickly, and fully break down when cooked.
Did you know that red lentils are actually the hulled and split form of the common brown lentil? The Indian name for red lentil dal is masoor dal, while sometimes in the West varieties of red lentils are available as Iberia lentils or petite crimson red lentils.
The red lentils used in this recipe are common, and widely available in most grocery stores in North America.
Substitutes for red lentils
To get the right texture, use a quick cooking lentil that is hulled (without the skin) so that it breaks down into mush.
Remember that red lentils may also be called masoor dal, Iberia lentils, or petite crimson red lentils. All of these will work, as well as the options listed below.
- Yellow lentils
- Yellow split lentils
- Golden lentils
- Yellow split peas (will break down, but more smooth)
- Moong dal (will break down, but more smooth)
Half a cup of lentils have about 116 calories, 9.1 grams of protein, 8.1 grams of fiber, and almost no fat.
This same amount of lentils meet 43 percent of your daily needs from iron.
They are also high in potassium, magnesium, calcium, phosphorus, folate, and B vitamins.
How to cook
I recommend soaking the red lentils for up to 4 hours or more, but if you don’t have time for soaking, it isn’t critical.
At the very least, though, I encourage you to rinse the lentils 4-5 times, until the water runs relatively clear.
It takes 35 minutes to cook the red lentils in a saucepan. Some instructions will say much less than this, but I recommend longer because it is important for lentils to be soft and fully cooked for ease of digestion.
The red lentil to water ratio is 4 to 1 because there is quite a bit of evaporation while the lentils cook.
You’ll know the lentils are fully cooked when they are soft, breaking apart, and evenly colored. You may need to add more water to keep the lentils covered.
Instant Pot red lentils
To cook red lentils in the Instant Pot, reduce the water ratio to 3 to 1, and cook under high pressure for 10 minutes.
How to improve digestibility
In addition to their pleasing flavors, the spices used in this recipe help to support the digestibility of the lentils. Without spices, legumes can be difficult to digest and gas forming.
If you have trouble digesting legumes, take heart in the fact that over a billion Indians eat lentils every day without trouble. They have understood how to make it work by building digestive support into their recipes.
Another way to increase digestibility is to soak the lentils and rinse them well to remove their saponins. Saponins are a protective substance used by the plant to protect itself against invading insects.
For humans, saponins can interfere with digestion, especially if you have a weak stomach. So you can remove this risk by soaking and rinsing.
Also, when simmering the lentils you can remove any foam that rises to the surface of the water by skimming it off with a spoon.
If you do all of the above, and still find red lentils difficult to digest, reduce the quantity you have in a single sitting, then build up your tolerance over time with regular consumption.
Red Lentil Dal Recipe
For the lentils
- 1 cup red lentils, rinsed
- 4 cups cold water
for the spiced tomatoes
- 1 tablespoon ghee
- ½ teaspoon cumin seeds
- ½ yellow onion, diced
- ½ teaspoon green chili, minced (sub with Serrano or Jalapeño)
- 1 tablespoon ginger root, finely minced
- ½ teaspoon turmeric powder
- ½ teaspoon coriander powder
- pinch red chili powder, or cayenne pepper powder
- 1 cup tomato puree, (⅔ of a 15.5 ounce can)
- ¼ cup cold water
- ¾ teaspoon mineral salt
to finish the dal
- 1 teaspoon lemon, freshly squeezed
- ¼ cup fresh cilantro, chopped
- If you have time, soak the lentils for as long as you can, up to 4 hours. If you don’t have time to soak, that’s okay. Just make sure that you rinse them well.
Cook the lentils
- Place the lentils in a sieve and rinse with running cold water for 1-2 minutes, until the water runs relatively clear.
- Place the rinsed lentils in a medium saucepan along with 4 cups of cold water. Turn the heat on high and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer for 25-30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the lentils are fully cooked. You’ll know the lentils are fully cooked when they are soft, breaking apart, and evenly colored. You may need to add more water to keep the lentils covered. Turn off the heat when the cooking is done.
Prepare the vegetables
- Meanwhile, dice the onion, and mince the green chili and ginger. Place together in a small bowl and keep by the stove for use in the next step. Mince your cilantro, and set it aside until needed in the last step.
Cook the spiced tomato sauce
- Heat ghee in a small saucepan on medium heat. Add the cumin seeds into the hot oil and watch them sizzle. Once they are fragrant, and have turned a few shades darker, add the prepared onion, green chili, and ginger are fully translucent and start to show signs of browning.
- Add the turmeric and coriander power and stir it into the onions. Add the tomato puree, ¼-cup water, salt, and red chili (or cayenne), and stir again. Bring to a boil, and then simmer 4-5 minutes until an oil sheen appears on the surface of the tomato sauce.
Finish the dal
- Transfer the spiced tomato mixture into the cooked pot of lentils. Turn the heat back on if necessary.
- Once you combine the spiced tomato with the lentil you need to simmer about 5 minutes to marry the flavors. If it is too thick, add water. If it is too wet, then cook on low until it thickens to your liking.
Garnish and finalize
- stir in fresh lemon and minced cilantro. Admire the beautiful colors of your professional dish.
- Give it a taste. Can you taste the salt? Can you taste the lemon? Is it spicy enough? Add more salt, lemon, or red chili if desired.