Masoor Dal – Spicy Red Lentils


The first time I heard the term flexitarian I literally laughed out loud.  However, the more I thought about it, the more I came to realize that this is exactly the direction I’ve been headed over the course of years.  Meat, although still very much enjoyed at my table has become less and less of a center point.  The portions have definitely become smaller and it is often not present at all or simply as a flavoring.  So, while I  would not consider myself a true flexitarian and according to Wikipedia I should actually be classified a reducetarian, it is the way I enjoy eating these days regardless of what you call it.

A good part of the credit for the change in our diet his must go to my lovely daughter who came home from a study abroad as a  pescetarian (there is absolutely a name for every diet)!  This challenged me to explore more and more vegetarian dishes when she was home.  Low and behold, they were so tasty,  many of them now have a spot in often repeated dishes appearing on my table.

Another large factor is my families love of Indian food.   In this cuisine,  the brilliant use of spices and spice combinations leaves ones senses fully satisfied without a hint of meat.   Now don’t get me wrong, I do love a  hearty dish of lamb or beef Rogon Josh.  However,  I can be just as happy with a bowl of this Masoor Dal, some basmati rice and a piece of nan to scoop them up.

The recipe comes from another of those great little cookbooks that form the backbone of my collection.  The Best of India – A Cookbook – Balraj Khanna.   I just checked and it is still available on Amazon, so if you love Indian food it should have a place in your collection as well.  In addition to great recipes and photography it has a glossary of ingredients that is especially useful when shopping in Indian markets and for the making of several masala’s that you can use in creations of your own.  This Masoor Dal is definitely the dish I’ve made the most often from this book and amazingly one that I never feel the need to tweak or adjust to suit my taste-it’s perfect just as written.  The only changes I’ve made are to update the quantity of tomatoes in a can (it’s dropped from 16 oz. to 14.5 oz) and to mince the garlic, jalapeno and ginger by hand rather than dirtying a blender!  OK maybe I’ve also thrown in a bit more onion and  garlic and a tad less ginger, but if you follow it the first time I think you’ll be happy and then you can go about adjusting to suit your tastes.

Happily nearly all of these ingredients are almost always in my pantry and refrigerator.  I broke down this week and bought some fresh tomatoes for the garnish.  The real deal is still far away from appearing in my garden and the little Campari tomatoes are actually pretty tasty even in March.   I do have a weakness for fresh tomatoes.


Start by rinsing and draining the lentils


Into the pot with the lentils, onion, spices and water.  


Bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover and simmer for 30 minutes.  Give it an occasional stir, especially if you do not have a heavy pot.


While the base is simmering you can prep the garlic, fresh chili (in a pinch you could use canned jalapeno) and ginger.  The easiest and safest way to peel ginger is to simply scrape the brown away with a spoon.


Finely minced, they all go into a small skillet with the ghee or butter.  Ghee is becoming easier to find but butter works just fine.  Just keep the heat low, you want them to sweat not burn.


I prefer whole peeled tomatoes in dishes like this where I want them to melt into the dish.  Diced tomatoes usually have calcium chloride added to help them keep their shape and remain firm.  The easiest way to chop whole peeled tomatoes without having them squirt is with a pair of kitchen shears (every kitchen needs at least one pair).


At the end of the 30 minutes, stir the tomatoes, oil, salt and garlic mixture into the lentil base.  Cover and cook an additional 30 minutes or until the lentil mixture is slightly thickened.


While the dal is on its final simmer you can make some basmati rice.   I’m a fan of brown rice and have switched to it for most of my rice containing recipes.  However,  when it comes to Indian food I prefer white basmati from India.  Indian grown rices will have been aged for a minimum of 1 year before packaging.   This gives the rice a nuttier flavor and a fluffier texture.   If the rice were to be aged with the bran and germ intact, the oils would oxidize and rancid off-flavor would develop.  So save the whole grain for other rice varieties, buy them in small quantities and store them in the refrigerator or freezer.    


And yes, I almost always use a rice cooker when making any type of rice.  It comes out perfect every time if you measure accurately and that keep warm function is awesome.


Now all that’s left is a bit of garnish with cilantro & tomato (totally optional) and heating a bit of nan to use in scooping up all that goodness.   There are many options for good nan in my markets these days.  One of my favorites is one from La Brea bakery in LA and sold at Costco.   I always have a package in my freezer.


One more story before the recipe!  The place mats remind me of a great meal I enjoyed in Singapore where the plates were banana leafs and the utensils were our hands.   One of the dishes we shared was fish head curry.  If you want a chuckle,  check out the youtube video on how to eat Singapore Fish Head Curry.   It’s the real deal.

Masoor Dal

(Spicy Red Lentils) 

by: M.B. Einerson Barely Adapted from The Best of India A Cookbook – Balraj Khanna

Servings: 4 to 6

  •  1 cup split red lentils (masoor dal), rinsed & picked over
  • ¾ cup finely chopped onion
  • 3 cups water
  • ½ tsp. ground turmeric
  • ½ tsp. ground cumin
  • ½ tsp. ground coriander
  • ½ tsp. chili powder
  •  1 Tbs. ghee or unsalted butter
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 fresh hot green chili, seeded and finely minced
  • One 2-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and finely minced
  • One 14.5 oz. can diced or whole peeled tomatoes, undrained
  • 3 Tbs. vegetable or olive oil
  • 1 ½ tsp. salt
  • 2 Tbs. cilantro, finely chopped for garnish
  • 2 medium tomatoes, thinly sliced for garnish

In a medium heavy saucepan or pot, combine the lentils, onions, water, turmeric, cumin, coriander and chili powder.  Bring to a boil and then reduce heat to low and cook covered for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a small skillet heat the ghee or butter over medium heat.  Add the garlic, chili and ginger and cook for approximately 2 minutes or until aromatic and slightly softened. Set aside until the lentils have cooked for their 30 minutes.

Stir the garlic mixture, tomatoes, oil and salt into the lentils.  Cover and cook for an additional 30 minutes or until the lentil mixture is thickened.  Serve garnished with the fresh cilantro and sliced tomatoes.