Dhal is a doubly comforting dish: it has that reassuring sloppiness of mushy peas or mashed potatoes, yet still packs a fulfilling punch with its slightly muted spiciness. That flavour is thanks to the tarka – a blend of spices is cooked separately in oil then added to the cooked lentils. If you can get fresh curry leaves for this recipe, it will be so much better. They’re stronger and impart their unique flavour – for me their flavour is more of a feeling: something in between a pop and a click in the mouth. 

(C) Nassima Rothacker

(C) Nassima Rothacker


  • 160g red split lentils
  • 1 teaspoon ground turmeric
  • 500ml vegetable stock or water


  • 50g coconut oil 
  • 1 teaspoon black mustard seeds
  • 2 teaspoons cumin seeds
  • 1 teaspoon nigella seeds
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 10 curry leaves (fresh are best, but dried will do)
  • 1 green chillies, finely chopped
  • 1 small onion, finely chopped
  • 4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 30g fresh ginger, peeled and finely grated
  • 1 large plum tomato, roughly chopped
  • Fine sea salt
  • 1 tablespoon freshly chopped coriander, to garnish
  • Rotis or chapatis, to serve


Put the lentils into a sieve and run under cold water until the water draining from the lentils runs clear. Add the lentils to a pan with the turmeric and stock (or water) and bring to the boil. Once the liquid is boiling, reduce the heat to a brisk simmer, and cook for about 30 minutes, until the lentils are very tender. Turn off the heat and leave the lentils for a good 15 minutes to plump up even more.

For the tarka, put the coconut oil into a frying pan over a high heat. As soon the oil shimmers add the mustard, cumin and nigella seeds, along with the bay leaf and curry leaves. Fry for a few minutes, until the spices smell strongly aromatic and the mustard seeds stop popping (it's wise to cover the pan with a lid as they pop), then add the chillies and onion. Reduce the heat to medium and fry, stirring frequently, until the onion is soft and just lightly golden – about 15 minutes. Add the garlic, ginger and tomato and increase the heat to medium-high. Cook until the tomato breaks down and, once the oil has risen to the surface, the tarka is ready.

Break the lentils down – I use a potato masher – then add the tarka. Return to the heat to warm through, season to taste, and serve with the chopped coriander and the bread.  

If you've enjoyed this recipe, then you'll love the book it's taken from. Comfort: Food to soothe the soul is available to purchase here