The Big Boys Curry Book

Tarka Dhal

These guys spend all their time making traditional coir fishing nets

Just about anyone who has been into an Indian restaurant in Britain will have had Tarka Dhal at some point. For many years I have used the humble dish as my yardstick for rating a restaurant as the variation is phenomenal, from yellow water to thick porridge, some with an identifiable tarka (hot topping) through a sprinkle of coriander to some with none at all but still masquarading under the name. In my book, if they cannot make this dish, then the rest is probably up the spout too. Rant over:-)

Dhal in some form or other is the most common food in India. This variation, I found back in the early 1980's and have cooked my TD the same way ever since. The most difficult thing about this recipe is getting the Aswain seeds. Do hunt them out, scour the local Asian supermarkets where you may see them as Aswain or Ajwan. If all else fails, you can grow your own Lovage (incidentally an old English herb as well as native to India.) which can be used as an alternative. The search will be worth it for I promise you will keep coming back to this one for a long time.The recipe is for 4 to 6 people and can be served alongside other dishes, particularly dry meat or vegetable dishes. I just like it with plain rice for lunch, which is how it (or variations thereof) is eaten in India. You can quite safely cook up multiples of the dhal and freeze batches of them. Defrost the batch and re-heat, adding extra water to get the right consistency. Make the tarka topping fresh.


The Dhal

  • 450g red lentils (masoor dhal)
  • 50g ghee
  • 1 medium onion, peeled and thinly sliced
  • 1 garlic clove, peeled and thinly sliced
  • 1.5 tsp turmeric
  • 1 tsp ground black pepper
  • Salt to taste
  • 1 litre water
  • 4 fresh green chillies topped and tailed (do not split)

The Tarka

  • 1 tbsp sesame seed oil
  • 1 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 1 tsp mustard seed (optional)
  • 8 curry leaves (optional)
  • 4 garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
  • 1 small onion, peeled and thinly sliced
  • 2 long dry red chillies
  • 1 tsp aswain or lovage seed


  1. Wash and sift the dhal (lentils) thoroughly to remove husk and stone. Drain.
  2. Heat ghee in heavy pan and fry onion and garlic gently until softened
  3. Add turmeric, salt, pepper and dhal. Stir gently to coat all dhal
  4. Add water and chillies. Boil , covered, for 20 minutes until lentils are cooked and resemble a medium custard in consistency. You may need to add extra water to maintain consistency. Do not let them dry out. When cooked to your liking set aside in a serving dish in a warm place, preferably with a cover.
  5. To make the tarka, heat the oil until it smokes and throw in the mustard and reduce heat a bit.
  6. When mustard crackles add chillies and fry for 30 seconds, constantly turning. Mind your eyes as the fumes will be pungent.
  7. Add rest of tarka ingredients except lovage and keep energetically stir frying until garlic is blackening or chillies are blackening whichever is first.
  8. Add aswain or lovage, remove from heat and keep stirring for 10 seconds.
  9. Pour mixture over lentils and cover. Serve hot.

The use of mustard and curry leaf is a South Indian variation. Try this recipe with and without the optional ingredients. When you've got the hang of it, try the recipe with other types of dhal and with mixes of dhal. I like a mix of masoor, toovar, urid and pearl barley. (masoor is sweet, toovar is meaty, urid is bitter and pearl barley adds bite.)

Back to recipe index