Easy Tadka Dal (Lentils)

La vita è bella

“It’s your last night here, what would you like to eat, Baba?,” I ask my father.
I know he likes the straccetti alla rughetta at Da Francesco in Piazza del Fico.
“A home-cooked meal. Dal and chawal,” he answers.

On his last night whilst visiting me in Rome, my father wished for me to prepare him a simple Pakistani-Afghan meal of dal, (lentils) and chawal, (Basmati rice).

A meal taking him back to his roots.

Soft, warm, velvety food. He asked for dal, just like the great Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan had requested of his son, Prince Aurangzeb.

But here is where the similarity between my father and I and Aurangzeb and his father ends.

In a blind quest for power, Aurangzeb imprisoned Shah Jahan for eight years, till his death.

Knowing that his father was a gourmand, Aurangzeb callously presented Shah Jahan with a stark choice, giving him the option of selecting but one food type for every meal.

Shah Jahan summoned his Royal Khansama (Chef) for advice.

He selected dal. It was the most prolific ingredient, cooked in umpteen ways and even used for dessert.

Though Shah Jahan did not live happily after, he enjoyed a variety of meals, thereby frustrating the sadistic designs of his son.

No such imprisonment here. Baba was to fly back to his home in Bucharest, Romania the next morning.

Though I do wish I could have kept him in Rome for the next 8 years.

Baba’s visits to Rome involved a daily jog in Circus Maximus.

Every evening, we’d walk down from my home in San Saba and go round and round the length of the oblong track, at the foot of the Palatine Hills, inhaling the scent of the pine tree canopies above us.

Powdered dust flying behind us as we would run farther and farther along the track.

On the very same ground where the chariot wheels must have turned for the entertainment of the Etruscan Kings of Rome.

After these runs, we would reward ourselves with some Roman fare.

Maybe we would head over to a favourite pizzeria, Remo, for a pizza margherita, crispy and paper thin, with a candy-red tomato base.

One solitary emerald-green leaf of basil embedded in the oozing mozzarella.

With Baba’s Partagás cigar finally lit up, we would walk through the Aventine Hill, towards Circus Maximus, past the famous Bocca della Verita from the film, Roman Holiday, and into the historical center.

Our favorite gelateria, Ciampini, shut at night, we would opt for Giolitti.

For me, a scoop of more (blackberry) with a snowball size of panna fresca, (fresh cream) and for Baba, always his favorite, pistacchio. No panna fresca, per favore.

Other nights we would have some clotted-cream-like burrata cheese at an enoteca, Cul de Sac.

As a frequent customer, the off-the-menu item of sliced Sicilian tomatoes (pachini) would arrive, drenched in jade-green olive oil with some crusty bread on the side.

Then maybe an order of the gamey venison pâté with juniper berries.

On a weekend, we’d start off the day at the Bar Linari in Testaccio, just down the road from my home in San Saba.

We’d sit outside in the sunshine as Baba would sip caffè latte from a tall, thin glass, reading the Financial Times and I would catch up on some chiacchiere with the barrista or the lady from the till.

And so our days would go.

Sunrays, coffee, gelato, pasta, small narrow alleys, a new church to be discovered.

All under Rome’s glorious cerulean blue skies.

But on his last night- before a 6 am flight back to Bucharest, he wanted to slump on the sofa, watch Rai Tre and feel like he was home again, in Lahore.

After all the lovely Roman meals we had had all week, we wanted to go back to our roots again.

With a bowl of mustard-yellow dal, scented with a tarka; a cumin and garlic oil infusion and dotted with confetti of fresh coriander leaves.

Over a mound of steaming Basmati rice. Or perhaps scooped up with some pizza bianca in the absence of naan.

Sitting, eating in my flat as the church bells in Piazza Nicoloso da Recco would go off for Sunday evening mass.

Later standing on my Juliette balcony, among my coral-red geraniums, looking at Frascati in the distance.

Baba’s arm draped over my shoulder. A lovely end to a father-daughter week.

La vita è bella. With a bowl of lentils and rice.

You can also have dal as a soup with some yoghurt drizzled on top…

…and some squirts of lemon.

Shah Jahan photocredit here.
Giolitti photocredit: Tridadvisor.

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Easy Tadka Dal (Lentils)

Author: Shayma Saadat

Ingredients

  • 1.5 teacup red lentils (masoor or Lens culinaris)
  • 1/2 teacup yellow moong lentils (the variety with husk/skin removed), found in Pakistani / Indian grocery stores
  • 1/2 tsp salt (adjust to taste)
  • pinch turmeric powder (haldi)
  • 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
  • 1 tbsp tomato sauce/passata/canned diced tomatoes or 1/4 fresh tomato, chopped, skin removed1
  • 1 garlic clove
  • 6 teacups boiling water, add more for the consistency of your liking

Tarka (optional)

  • 2-3 tbsp sunflower oil (or any other neutral-scented oil, except olive oil)
  • 1 tsp zeera; cumin seeds
  • 1 whole garlic clove, sliced very thin and wide
  • 1 long, dried red chili (found in Pakistani / Indian grocery stores) optional

Garnish

  • fresh coriander/cilantro leaves stems and leaves chopped fine

Instructions

  • Plonk into a medium-sized heavy bottomed pan, (I use a 6 qt stockpot): lentils, salt, haldi, cayenne pepper, garlic clove, tomato sauce and boiling water.
  • Place it on a low-medium flame, cover with lid, but not completely, so as to allow some steam to escape, otherwise the lentils will overflow- you don't want a yellow protein mess on your stovetop.
  • Let it simmer for 30 minutes. You will see that the two breeds of lentils will finally become a velvety puree, indistinguishable from each other; this means it is ready. Smoosh the garlic clove with the back of your ladle, it will blend right in.

For the tarka

  • Heat the oil in a frying pan, once the oil is hot, add garlic, dried chili pepper and cumin. As soon as the garlic turns a nutty brown, remove from the stove and pour over the lentils. Take care, it may splatter.Stir and sprinkle with fresh coriander.

Serving options

  • With Basmati rice, (see my recipe here);
  • With chapati or naan; or
  • As a soup, with some lemon squeezed in with dollops of yogurt.

Notes

1. (Don’t worry about opening a brand new can for these ingredients, they can be omitted; you won’t be compromising on the flavour of the end result).

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65 Comments

  1. Delicious!

    That is my favourite food in the whole world. I could eat it everyday.

    A beautiful blog post

    LBB x

  2. I love the way you describe my home town. It makes me feel proud and reminds me of all the beautiful things we have..except for now we are missing you! Un abbraccio forte da Roma

  3. Nothing, and i mean nothing, is as comforting as a bowl of dhal – the ultimate in relaxing and curative food. I’ve never tried it with a mix of different pulse before and am looking forward to giving it a go.

  4. Shayma che meraviglia!!…

    you are such a gifted/talented woman…u know that?….love ur writing … love Fra

  5. Mmm, I love dal. I will have to try this, sounds so simple. And what evocative descriptions of Rome, makes me want to visit right now!

  6. @Litte Brown Bird Well hello, there dear, and welcome. Thanks for the lovely words, we love dal because we’re both from the same part of the world 🙂

    @Petulia Thank you, dearest. I could go on forever, writing about Rome. I had to remind myself this post was about my experiences of Rome with my father- related to lentils. It’s hard to stop talking about Rome. I miss it everyday, and all of you. At least I know I have another home in the world- in Italy. x s

    @The Grubworm The different pulses make it thicker. I find masoor (len culinaris) too watery on its own, but that is just my personal take on it. When my mum makes it, she uses just masoor. Do let me know how it goes. Thank you for the visit, as always.

    @Fra Thanks so much. Love you. x s

    @Geekymummy It is very simple indeed, you can play around with the proportions and add as much salt/chili pepper/water as you like. You can make the dish your own. Thank you for your lovely words.

  7. Yay – finally we get to read abour your dal! It sounds lovely. Very similar to a tarka dal I make, but with the addition of mung dal. I agree with grubworm, dal is probably the most comforting dish in the world! certainly one of my favourites.

    ah – la burrata! I love it!

  8. @Maninas Thanks. I like the addition of yellow mung as it thickens the dal a bit. Dal most certainly is comfort food at its best. La burrata, I had it for the first time in Bari, and fell in love. You could find it in some supermarkets in Rome, wrapped in a green leaf. x s

    @Gluttonforlife Thank you! For soup, I just adjust the seasoning and add more water and whisk it. The addition of the moong dal ensures that the soup remains an integrated whole. Promise. x s

  9. Lovely your description of Rome; one of my childhood friends whose mom was Italian saw her mom leave Lebanon to go back to Rome where she worked in a pensione and is still there today, enjoying the city very much. I would love to visit some day.
    Love the part about your baba; he sounds like a wonderful, gentle, man. This dish of lentils and rice transcends the ages and classes. Wonderful.

  10. Beautiful post, darlink! I love love dal and will even attempt to make it myself although, would much prefer you to make it for me. Can you believe I have NEVER been to Rome – a situation which must be redressed. It looks delicious in so many ways. (Your Dad sounds lovely by the way)
    clare

  11. Thanks Shayma

    I’ll try my next dal with red lentils…I made one last week with a mixture of toor and chana dal, which was just delicious. I think I might be addicted to toor dal! Perhaps I’ll try it this weekend with your chicken curry. But I also want to try the spinach dip…too many yummy temptations!

    Jo

  12. @Ashoo Apa Thank you.

    @TasteofBeirut Thanks, J. I think I mentioned to you before that one of my best friends from Rome is from Lebanon, her and her family have been living there all their lives. What’s not to love about Rome? Thanks for your kind words regarding my father. x s

    @Kman Thanks 🙂 Keep the feedback coming, regarding the shots.

    @Cmiranda Thank you and thank you for the visit.

    @Niamh Thanks, I know you like dal, too. And thank you for visiting my site.

    @Clare Come and visit and I’ll make you loads of dal and I even have your fave ketjap manis here for you. Thanks for loving words. x s

    @Jo Thank you. Seems like you’re making loads of wonderful things in your kitchen, Jo. I would also like to try toor dal, I don’t think we use it in Pakistan, I must ask my Aunty who is from Delhi for the recipe (her toor dal is exquisite!). Dal and chicken curry is a regular on our menu at home, so Buon Appetito.

  13. Love it Shayma, my darling… my fave dal! ‘Moong masoor’ as we call it and good in every spoonful; and yes, the proportions are just the thing here!!
    Love the connect you have with it, the history class & the beautiful pictures.
    I often add a fresh green chili to the tadka!

  14. I once learned to cook daal and was told that the “tarka” …the act of gently pouring sizzling oil on the daal from an appropriate height/angle…is its defining moment. This requires practice but I marvel at your simple but sophisticated daal recipe…worthy of Shaha Jahans Royal table!!

  15. i have to admit, while the dal looks splendid and i can’t wait to try it, i was thrilled to read all your favorite Rome haunts. i’m heading to italy in may for 5 weeks with my grad school and plan on eating my way through it, so this post is coming with me on the airplane. absolutely beautiful post, and thank you 🙂

  16. The ultimate desi comfort food in rome or anywhere else on the planet.
    Nothing like going back to basics simple but yet so impactful to the palatte, I would eat this with a healthy dollop of mixed achaar on the side and in my tarka i sometimes add curry leaves to the frying oil the smell and taste come out divine. The writing was beautiful as ever i could almost feel the roman sunshine and taste the tangy tomato pizza base.

  17. I really love dhal – it’s so comforting, and a tarka is such a perfect method of flavouring it. Lovely photos – I could do with a bowl now.

  18. This daal looks absolutely delicious! Your photos are absolutely amazing. Great job on the blog. I’ve had your mom’s daal and have to say that it’s the best I’ve ever had.

  19. Another winner. I loved this recipe’s mix of lentils–and the spice-infused oil adds an incredible hit of nuanced flavor.

    Destined to be a staple comfort food chez nous.

    Thanks for the gorgeous photos and post.

  20. Beautiful post – delicious looking recipe and here is something funny. I call my father Baba too. He is Jordanian but he lives in guess where? Bucharest, Romania. I was raised in Greece, my mother is Romanian, my husband is Austrian and my daughter is English – it’s always great to come across another diverse person!
    I found your blog through food52. I really love how you interweave family anecdotes, history, culture and most importantly food (oh and the pictures of course!)

  21. hi,
    i usually make only masoor, but last nite followed ur recipe and moong and masoor gave such a perfect texture.
    i love ur blog and i wanted to tell u that i will be visiting rome soon inshallah, so happy to see the place you described so beautifully here. thanks

  22. this looks absolutely delish. actually all the recipes under your afghan listing do. i’m so glad i found your blog, you have some amazing new-to-me recipes that i can’t wait to try!

  23. the daal looks yummy and i love the description of rome 🙂 lovely city 🙂

  24. Lovely writing – gorgeous photos! Can I ask a stupid question? When the dal is quite liquid and served in a bowl with the rice in a mound on the side….what is the appropriate (polite?) way to eat? Does one take a spoonful of rice and dip it into the dal?Or are they eaten separately?

    I have only rarely attempted to make dal & the recipes I’ve used are probably not very authentic as the dal is always very thick and I’ve served it dumped – not at all elegantly or appetizingly – on top of a plateful of rice and shovelled up with fork and spoon. Clearly I need instruction! HELP!

    1. @Julia Hello, not a ‘stupid’ question at all. Honestly, there are no dogmas, you can eat this any which way you like. I like to add the dahl to the rice; but if you want to add rice to the dahl, you can do that, too. Thanks for your kind words.

  25. stumbled upon your blog and now going through archives of various foods has made me very hungry at a very wrong time 🙂 My dilemma with cooking daal is that it doesn’t end up velvety smooth but water remains separated from the blob of daal. How do i get both to form that soup like consistency. I thought may be i was’t using authentic cooking vessel and got a clay pot (kachi haandi)from Pakistan but still no luck. I use 1:1 ratio of moong and masoor and eye ball quantity of water. Lentils are always soaked nicely but don’t know which part creates the problem. Is it the ratio, water, cooking pot or what? Help!!!

    1. @RabailQ Thank you, Rabail for your sweet comment. If the water remains separated, that is an indication that perhaps you are adding too much water. I don’t think it has anything to do with the vessel in which you are making dahl- though cooking in a terracotta pot adds such a rich flavour to any dish. I would cook this on a low and steady flame and perhaps keep adding water every 10 minutes as the lentils tenderise. Have you tried making it using my recipe?

  26. perfect ghar ka khaana. nothing invigorates you better after a busy day than a simple homely dinner with family.

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