Looking for a cozy, comforting dal recipe? This masoor dal (red lentils) topped with crispy garlic oil is easy and flavorful.
Though I grew up eating Indian food almost every day, it wasn’t until a few years ago that I actually learned how to cook it myself. I often found Indian cooking intimidating; to me, each dish felt like a laundry list of ingredients and components.
At the same time, I found Indian food so comforting, laden with warming spices and complex flavors. I set out to dispel this myth for myself and develop a set of recipes that could be both delicious and accessible. I’m SO excited to share this recipe with you!
What is Masoor Dal?
Masoor dal typically refers to orange-red lentils cooked in water until they disintegrate into a thick, creamy, porridge-like liquid. In the supermarket, you can look for lentils labeled ‘Masoor Dal’ or ‘Split Red Lentils.’. It’s important to purchase split lentils that are orange in color, as masoor dal can also be purchased whole; whole masoor dal, though, is brown.
What Makes This Recipe Special
What makes this masoor dal different? In addition to making an accessible recipe, I wanted to make sure that this dal could be enjoyed over and over again without getting tired of the flavors.
- A crispy garlic tadka topping MAKES this dish. Inspired by a recipe by Nik Sharma, I opted to thinly slice pieces of garlic and fry them until crisp and golden-brown in hot oil. Just before serving, I pour the sizzling hot garlicky oil over the dal for an extra-special treat.
- In addition to a tadka topping, the lentils simmer in an aromatic base of onion, ginger, garlic, and spices for extra flavor (also technically a tadka, but we’ll get into that later!).
- After some prep work, the whole meal comes together in less than an hour as you simmer the lentils while you saute the aromatic base.
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What is a Tadka?
There are so many ways to make and flavor dals. In this recipe, you build a flavorful base for your lentils with onion, garlic, tomato, and spices.
Once the lentils are cooked, you mix the liquid into the base and top it with a crispy garlic oil topping, otherwise known as a tadka.
💡What is a Tadka?💡
There are so many different names for this technique that involves adding spices to a hot oil to extract the essential flavor compounds. In India, the most common names I’ve heard of are tadka, chhonk, or phodni.
Phodni is the Marathi word, and it means to “break open”, as in breaking open the essential flavors from the spice. In laymen’s terms, it simply refers to the process of sizzling whole and ground spices in oil.
You can use whatever spices you like, from cumin seeds to mustard seeds to chili powder. For the sake of simplicity, I will use the word tadka from now on as it is the most commonly used term to describe this process.
→ Want to learn more about the tadka technique? Check out my comprehensive Guide to Cooking with Indian Spices.
To finish the dal, you pour the sizzling garlicky oil on top of the liquid for an even more robust flavor. Garnish with cilantro and a squeeze of lime for acidity, and you’ve got yourself a delicious weeknight meal.
Red lentils (masoor dal): We’ve already talked about this a bit, but you will need split red lentils (also known as masoor dal) for this recipe. You can purchase red lentils at most large supermarkets or specialty Indian stores. Make sure to rinse the lentils thoroughly before cooking, as they can often have a little bit of dirt or debris in the packaging.
Spices: Here, we’re using a mix of whole (cumin seeds, brown or black mustard seeds optionally) and ground spices (turmeric, garam masala, ground coriander, and chili powder if desired). Cumin seeds, turmeric, garam masala, and coriander can easily be found at most grocery stores and supermarkets in the spice section. Brown/black mustard seeds can be a little more difficult to find in a typical supermarket, but you can purchase them at a specialty Indian grocery store or online.
Aromatics: Onion, ginger, garlic, and serrano chili form the base of the aromatics in this dal. The garlic is used in two ways, first mixed into the dal, and finally to top the dal.
Tomato: In Indian cooking, roma or plum tomatoes are recommended, even in the depths of winter. Why? Canned tomatoes are often too acidic; their flavors are too intense, and their texture does not break down in the same way as their fresh counterparts.
On the other hand, fresh tomatoes offer a mild sweetness with just a bit of acidity to balance out the rest of the aromatics. If you can’t find roma or plum tomatoes, opt for a larger beefsteak tomato. Avoid using cherry or grape tomatoes, which will not break down properly to create a paste.
Cilantro: A bit of fresh cilantro helps brighten the whole dish.
Lime: Lime provides a nice acidity to round out the dal.
How Can I Make This Recipe My Own?
There are so many ways to make this dish your own! You absolutely can omit either the base (tomato onion mixture) or the tadka. In fact, most dals traditionally don’t have both a starting tadka (used to make the base) and a finishing tadka (used for topping) — I happen to like it for the additional flavor.
You can swap out the lentils for another kind, but keep in mind, red lentils do not need soaking and cook quickly, unlike some of the other varieties. You can add ginger, or swap out the spices for your own flavor profile.
I recommend trying this recipe once, as is, then using it more as a guide than a “strict” set of instructions. I’d love to see what you come up with!
Storage and Reheating Instructions
Store leftover dal in an airtight container in the fridge for 4-5 days.
To reheat the dal, simply transfer it to a saucepan or stockpot and bring to a gentle simmer until warmed through. While the garlic tadka won’t stay crispy, the dal on the whole keeps really well for a few days.
The optimal texture depends on your own preference — but generally, you want the lentils to almost fully disintegrate into a mushy, creamy texture. Some people like dal quite soupy, while others like a thicker puree. You can always add more water to loosen it up if you like!
Additionally, when lentils cool, they will thicken so you may need to add more water later on (or if reheating the dish).
No. Unfortunately, burnt spices taste bitter and inedible. You’ll need to throw the oil/spice mixture out and redo it.
You want to use the smallest, narrowest pan you have. The reason for this is that you’re essentially trying to fry the spices in the oil.
So, if you use a larger pan, you can still make the tadka, but you may need to tilt the pan to ensure the spices are fully submerged/coated in the oil. There is also a special type of small pan called a tadka pan that you can purchase if you make Indian food often — see here for more details on a tadka pan.
This masoor dal pairs wonderfully with hot chapatis or steaming white rice. If you’re looking for some menu suggestions, I recommend these dishes to serve alongside the dal:
- Mushroom Biryani
- Roasted Potatoes with Chaat Masala and Green Chutney
- Springy Peas and Fried Onion Pulao
Did you try this recipe? I would love to hear your feedback! Be sure to rate the recipe and leave a comment below.
For even more cozy recipes, be sure to subscribe to my newsletter.Happy eating! Love, Karishma
👩🏽🍳🌶️ Important FYI 🌶️👩🏽🍳
I cycle through my spices quite quickly because of my extensive recipe development work. I also source my spices from specialty spice shops that tend to offer fresher spices.
What does this mean for you?
Make sure to check your spices before following this recipe. If your spices emit a strong fragrance, they’re likely fresh. If they seem older or more stale, you may need to purchase new spices or add more spices to achieve the same flavor. Otherwise, this recipe might not taste as flavorful.
Masoor Dal Tadka (Red Lentil Dal Tadka)
For the Masoor Dal:
- 190 g red lentils, about 1 cup
- 711 ml water, about 3 cups (plus more if needed)
- 1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
- 1 tablespoon canola oil or ghee
- 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
- 1 large red onion, halved, peeled, and finely diced
- 2 garlic cloves, finely minced
- 1 serrano chili, slit in half lengthwise
- 1 plum or roma tomato, diced with the juices
- 1 teaspoon garam masala
- 1 teaspoon ground coriander
- 1/2 teaspoon kashmiri chili powder, optional
- Salt and black pepper to taste
For the Crispy Garlic Tadka:
- 1 tablespoon canola oil or ghee
- 1 large garlic clove or 2 small garlic cloves, thinly sliced
- 1 teaspoon brown or black mustard seeds, optional
- 1 handful fresh cilantro, minced (for garnish)
- 1 lime, for serving
- Cooked white rice or chapati, for serving
Make the Masoor Dal:
- Rinse the lentils: In a fine mesh strainer, rinse the lentils with water a few times to remove any dirt or debris. Drain the lentils and transfer to a medium (3 quart) stock pot with 3 cups of water.190 g red lentils, 711 ml water
- Cook the lentils: Set the stock pot over high heat and bring to a boil. Using a spoon, skim off any of the white foam that comes to the surface.
- Stir in the turmeric. Reduce the heat and simmer for 15-25 minutes, or until the lentils are extremely tender and have disintegrated into a somewhat mushy, soupy consistency but still retain some texture. Note: If you notice the water has reduced too much, you can add up to an additional 1/2 cup to 3/4 cup of water until it's reached your desired consistency.1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
- Cook the aromatics: Meanwhile, set a saute pan with oil over medium heat. Add in the cumin seeds and saute until they begin to sizzle.1 tablespoon canola oil or ghee, 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
- Immediately add the red onion and saute for about 8-10 minutes until onions are soft, translucent in the middle, and lightly browned on the edges. Note: You're looking for a golden brown color here, not burnt onions.1 large red onion
- Add the garlic and green chili, and saute for 1 minute until aromatic.2 garlic cloves, 1 serrano chili
- Stir in the tomato. Simmer until the tomatoes break down and the tomato-onion mixture resembles a thick, almost paste-like consistency, 7-8 minutes.1 plum or roma tomato
- Add the garam masala, ground coriander, and chili powder (if using). Season to taste with salt and pepper. Note: At this point, the mixture should taste slightly saltier and full of spice than you'd like it. Once you add the lentils, the flavor will be diluted, so feel free to adjust as necessary if you want more spice or salt.1 teaspoon garam masala, 1 teaspoon ground coriander, 1/2 teaspoon kashmiri chili powder, Salt and black pepper to taste
- Once the lentils are cooked, add them to the saute pan and stir, simmering for 1 minute. Season again with salt, pepper, or other spices if necessary. Lentils are quite bland, so you may need ample amounts of salt!
Make the Crispy Garlic Tadka:
- While the lentils simmer with the aromatics, set a small pan with the oil over medium heat.1 tablespoon canola oil or ghee
- Add the garlic and let sizzle until they just begin to turn a pale golden brown color on one side. Flip the garlic and cook on the other side until both sides are pale golden, about 2 minutes.1 large garlic clove or 2 small garlic cloves
- Add the mustard seeds (if using). Once the seeds sizzle and pop, about 10 to 15 seconds, immediately take the tadka off the heat and pour over the dal.1 teaspoon brown or black mustard seeds
Finish the Dish:
- Garnish with a handful of cilantro and a squeeze of lime. Divide amongst serving bowls and serve immediately with rice or chapati.1 handful fresh cilantro, 1 lime, Cooked white rice or chapati
- Lentils are incredibly bland on their own, so you will want to be generous with the salt!
- Additionally, I cycle through my spices quite quickly because of my extensive recipe development work; I also tend to hand-ground my spices so they stay very fresh.
- What does this mean for you? Make sure to check your spices before following this recipe. If your spices emit a strong fragrance, they’re likely fresh. If they seem older or more stale, you may need to purchase new spices or add more spices to achieve the same flavor. Otherwise, this recipe might not taste as flavorful.