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Danyal Dhondy’s Granny's Tarka Dal - vegan

My granny was a wonderful cook. When I was little, she made the journey over from India a few times, each for a long stretch, and she would take over the kitchen for the duration of her visit. Every evening my parents would come home from work and we'd eat like maharajahs. Her dal recipe was one of the simpler ones, eventually making its way down to me, via my dad, when I was old enough to chop an onion. The recipe's very forgiving, and I adapt it every time I use it depending on what I've got in. These quantities makes enough for two, but as it always tastes better the next day, I try to make double and refrigerate.


(for the dal):

Half a cup of lentils (red are the least hassle – adapt soaking time if using others)

1 tsp fenugreek leaves

½ tsp turmeric powder

½ tin tomatoes

salt to taste

(for the tarka):

1 tbsp sunflower oil

1 medium onion

4 cloves of garlic

a knob of ginger

a green finger chilli

1 tsp coriander seeds (or powder)

1 tsp cumin seeds (or powder)

1 tsp garam masala

1 tsp chilli powder


First, put your lentils into a mixing bowl and cover with lukewarm water. Massage them with your hands until the water goes cloudy. Drain and repeat (2 or 3 times) until the water stays clear. Leave them soaking for 20 minutes. Meanwhile, chop your onion, garlic, ginger and chilli as small as you dare.

When the lentils have soaked, drain them, transfer them into a saucepan and cover with 1½ cups of water. Add the fenugreek leaves, turmeric, tinned tomatoes and salt, bring to the boil, and then simmer on a low heat. Stir occasionally, making sure nothing sticks to the bottom of the pan. Add more water if required.

Put a tablespoon of sunflower oil into a frying pan on a low/medium heat, and when hot, add the chopped onion. Stir occasionally, and let it cook for about 10 minutes. Meanwhile, grind your coriander and cumin in a pestle and mortar. When the onion is starting to go translucent, add the garlic, ginger and chilli, and stir fry for one minute, until fragrant. Then, add the coriander, cumin, garam masala and chilli powder, with a little water to stop the spices burning. Mix it all together, and let it cook for 5 minutes. Add a little more water if it dries out. Check the dal – the lentils should be soft. Add more salt if needed (it can take a surprising amount). When the dal has a good consistency and flavour, mix the tarka in with it. Serve warm with basmati rice.

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