Red Lentil Curry/Dal, South Indian Style

This is my absolute number one red lentil dal and I’m particularly proud to share my enthusiasm with you because it’s my own improvisation, based on typical ingredients of certain South Indian dishes I have recently learnt to cook (you’ll see big similarities with this Egg Curry). I have no idea if red lentil curry is popular in the South and, if yes, if it’s even seasoned this way, but I fell in love in this version with lighter, sharper flavours, so different from all the red lentil dals I know.

I love red lentils for their taste but also because they are quick to prepare (they don’t require soaking, in case you have never cooked them). Therefore, in my short Indian cooking experience I have tested several red lentil dal recipes from cookery books I otherwise appreciate a lot, but always with the feeling something was wrong with the seasoning. A couple of weeks ago I decided to do it my way, first with a small batch. I used very few ingredients, but only those I’m nowadays crazy for. The result was so good, I did the same with the remaining lentils and froze in several single portions (this is how i discovered red lentil curry is fantastic defrosted too!).

If you feel lazy (I often do) and don’t feel like preparing a second protein dish, you can add some pieces of chicken breast (or tofu, paneer, boiled eggs…) together with lentils and thus obtain a very filling one-pot meal. (You might notice the lentils above were cooked with chicken). I’d freeze the dal without additional proteins and then add them while it’s being reheated.

TIPS: You can cook the lentils in water well in advance (even several days before) and then taking the part you need, prepare the final dish.

Both unseasoned cooked lentils and the final dish freeze very well. If you are in a hurry, defrost them in a microwave up to the moment when it’s possible to transfer them to a pan and then reheat, covered (his is what I do most of the time). I usually add chicken or eggs when the dish is already boiling.

Curry leaves are best when fresh or frozen (dried ones are practically without scent and are very unpleasant to eat, while the fresh ones are edible, contrary to bay leaves). They can be bough in Indian or Sri Lankan shops but also online (I know certain people grow them commercially in the US). If you don’t find them, skip them because there is no substitute. The curry will be very good without them too.

Preparation: about 1 hour

Ingredients (serves two as a main dish, especially if served with a vegetable side-dish, pickles and a carb source, such as rice, chapatti or simply bread):

200 g dry red lentils

400 ml (about ) water or stock

2 tablespoons oil (I’ve used coconut oil)

3-4 small Western shallots or 1 big onion, finely sliced

1 teaspoon black mustard seeds

10-15 fresh curry leaves

2 medium-hot fresh green chillies (or more, if you want it hotter), sliced

3 garlic cloves, chopped

2 cm (about 3/4 in) fresh ginger, grated or finely chopped

2 medium tomatoes or 100 ml canned tomatoes, chopped (you may skin the fresh ones, but it’s not necessary)

1/2 teaspoon powdered turmeric

1 teaspoon medium-hot chilli powder (I have used Kashmiri chilli)

salt, freshly ground black pepper

1 teaspoon garam masala

coriander leaves

First cook the red lentils until soft, adding water if necessary (check often the water level).

It should take about 20-30 minutes.

You should obtain a mushy, not very appetising-looking thick gruel-like stuff.

If it’s too soupy, increase the heat and the excess water will evaporate.

In the meantime start preparing the final dish in a frying pan.

Warm some oil in a pan, add the mustard seeds and when they start popping, quickly add the shallots (or onions), green chilli and curry leaves.

Stir-fry at medium heat until the onions become golden and softened.

Add the garlic and the ginger and stir-fry for one minute.

Off the hob add the chilli powder and the turmeric and stir well.

Place back on the hob and add the tomatoes.

Stir-fry until the tomatoes thicken (about 1 minute).

Now finally add the cooked lentils, the garam masala, give the whole dish a good stir add salt and pepper to taste. (If you have made lentils beforehand, cover the pan and wait until they are well heated).

Serve sprinkled with fresh coriander leaves.

13 Replies to “Red Lentil Curry/Dal, South Indian Style”

  1. I particularly adore the creamy texture that red lentils have so Iโ€™m 100% sure I would love this! I have yet to buy curry leaves but I know where I can buy them. I will pick up a bag of lentils today!

  2. Oh, this precisely what I’m craving right now Sissi. Your description has my mouth watering. It’s hard to go wrong with intuitive eating — incorporating the flavors and ingredients we desire most in the moment. It sounds like you got this one just right. ps: I never skin tomatoes either ๐Ÿ˜‰

    1. Thank you, Kelly, for the kind words. It’s such a simple recipe (for an Indian recipe, I mean!), but I love these lentils seasoned this way.

  3. You looked in my pantry didn’t you and saw that I’ve had some red lentils in there for quite a while? ๐Ÿ™‚ I’ve never been much of a lentil fan, but have heard that the red ones are the best so I picked some up. And now…you have reinforced it. Great seasoning and I love the idea of adding paneer to make a whole meal. Just happen to have some in the fridge. And no, I don’t peel tomatoes either. In fact, I don’t peel apples or potatoes. ๐Ÿ™‚ Thanks Sissi and hope you’re having a wonderful week.

    1. Haha! Thank you so much, MJ! Well, red lentils are so different from brown or green lentils… they become quickly soupy and creamy and I find their taste quite delicate, so maybe you’ll like them? Red lentil dal/curry is in fact like a thick soup. I also don’t peel apples, potatoes (unless they are very old and the skin is thick, but I do it after cooking), carrots, cucumbers… as long as the skin is edible I wash the vegetables only and prefer it this way (it’s not only because of my laziness).

  4. I love dal, I make it quite often and even eat it cold on bread, like a spicy bread spread. ๐Ÿ™‚ I will try your version, your enthusiasm makes me curious.

    1. Thank you, Adina. What a coincidence! (I love this bowl). I hope you will like this version… though compared to other dals it’s not very rich in aromatic spices (but strangely I prefer these lentils seasoned this way). Great idea to have it cold as a bread spread!

  5. I made some red lentils the other time and my son gave me the face haha! I probably have to try this recipe out and see if he likes it! It can become very picky sometimes! great dish and i don’t peel the tomatoes either!

    1. Thank you so much, Katerina. This is rather like a very thick soup, so maybe presented this way it seems more attractive for lentil haters?

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