Guy and Dahls

Lentils on a platter with spoon
Photo: 80p, clearly.

Spicy lentil dahl is the overlooked stepchild of any fancy Indian dinner, often lost between the savory samosas and the heat-packing curries. Poor, lonely dahl is even overshadowed by its own dipping vehicle, the wonderfully crisp naan.

But dahl, (also spelled daal, dal or dhal) is quite delicious in its own right, and I recently got to thinking it can’t be too hard to cook at home. Now, as you all know, I’m not really one for careful, planned-out testing of recipes. Usually I just take something tried and true, crush some pine nuts on top, throw in a weird fruit, and proclaim myself a genius. But for my dahl experimentation, I decided to go all Cooks Illustrated on ya’ll and try this baby until I got it perfect.

My online research revealed a wide range of recipes, but general agreement on the basics. Red lentils are the best, and they are boiled up with water, onions, garlic and spices, then covered and steamed just like rice. This epicurious recipe is a pretty typical example.

The main controversy comes over how to break up the lentils. Some say to soak them overnight beforehand; others insist the dahl must be blended in a food processor afterwards. I tried both and found them equally effective. (Obv. the blending is less time consuming.) Although if you prefer your dahl thick and chunky rather than sleek and smooth, neither method is necessary. Pictures of both creamy and chunky varieties coming up…


So here’s my basic first stab…

– Saute two shallots and two cloves of garlic.

– Add 1 cup of lentils and 3 cups of water. Bring it to a boil.

– Add turmeric, cumin, ginger, salt, pepper; turn down and cover. Let it simmer for 15ish, until the lentils are soft and the water is absorbed.

The verdict: damn tasty. But, after taking the picture, I just didn’t feel right. In a dimly-lit Indian restaurant, placed in an ornate Eastern serving dish surrounded by all kinds of interesting sauces, who even remembers what dahl looks like? But my plated version – let’s face it, this stuff looks like puke.

Given that I now pretty much only cook so that I can blog about it, I just couldn’t leave it at that. Red lentils are so cool looking – why does dahl have to be so vomit-y? Why can’t dahl be as intensely red as the lentils that fathered it? And thus began my epic quest in search of a pretty dahl.

I assumed the intense yellowness of the cooked lentils was likely from the turmeric, which is one of those Indian spices that likes to spread some color around. So for my second attempt, I left the turmeric out, and used red paprika instead. This helped a bit, but I was still disappointed when I opened my steamed lentils to find an off-yellow mess. Undeterred, I added a spoonful of Thai Kitchen red curry paste. This worked well, so I continued adding curry paste. The problem was, the curry paste brought heat quicker than it did color, so I had to stop before it was as red as I desired, or I would have ventured into way-too-spicy land. You can see this pinkish-orangish version below:


This version, while delicious, looks arguably even more like puke. So for my next trick, I followed the same path, but for each spoon of curry paste, I also added a spoon of tomato paste. This worked well for both color and spiciness. I got my reddest outcome yet, and the sweet tomato cut down on the heat of the curry:


However, it was lacking in one crucial department: taste. The tomato paste left a tangy feel that just didn’t go. I’m embarrassed to say I threw the rest of this dahl out. (Many apologies to the starving people of India.)

After an intense scouring of the food co-op for any potential reddining ingredients, I went a little crazy and grabbed some pomegranate extract, figuring I might get a deep red-purple thing. I poured a drop of this into my newest version of dahl, and wow, it did not make it purple. It was closer to brown. And by closer to brown, I mean it literally looked like it belonged in the toilet. Again, a quite tasty version, but not even appropriate to be pictured here.

Feeling desperate and forlorn, I sulked through my next trip to the store, in search of something, anything, that would make my dahl red. Then I saw it: Ajvar. It’s a spread made from red peppers mixed with eggplant, garlic, olive oil and some spices. I had considered blending in red peppers before, but was worried it would just lead to pink. But this beauty, stirred in, provided the closest to true red I’ve found yet:


Considering how much I love red peppers, I was of course down with the taste. I could still go for just a little more red, and yes, I realize these last three pictures are pretty damn similar-looking, but it was tough for me, so BACK OFF. Suggestions for further redness would be greatly appreciated.

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  • 80 Proof February 26, 2008  

    Red food coloring

  • maidelitala February 26, 2008  

    Yummy! I think it just looks poorly plated in the first two, the texture is obvioulsy a little pukey. I like the picture of the daal beans alone. beautiful. maybe if it was in a bowl with some cumin seeds sprinkled on top? or mixed with some basmatti rice? red food coloring might just turn it a strange hot-pink florescent easter eggy color. if you had placed the somosa in the middle that might have worked.

  • gansie February 26, 2008  

    what an adventure. i’ve also had problems with dahl too. my versions are both ugly and don’t have a great kick. sorry i can’t be of more help.

  • Kim O. February 26, 2008  

    Dude, No need to soak the red lentils AT ALL. That’s the beauty of red dal; they’re quick cooking and don’t need a soak! They’re also practically self pureeing, which means no post-cooking puree is necessary. Let me know if you need a hands-on tutorial.

  • Alex February 26, 2008  

    Beautiful photo. Also I can attest personally to the deliciousness of the pomegranate extract, with something spicy and red as well – the curry paste I think?

  • Melissa February 27, 2008  

    Love the dad posts!

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