tarka dal

Lentils, with spiced oil added just before serving is common across all of India.

Different regions will use different types of lentils, use different oil and different spices to prepare tarka dal. Some may add jaggery, onion, ginger or garlic. What they all agree on is the technique of making a simple dal, tempering some oil, and then adding this to serve.

This technique of tempering oil is as much about adding flavour to the oil as cooking the spices. Depending on the region, Indians will refer to it as vagarne, chaunk, tadka, tarka, or baghaar. The ingredients are often added in succession, with those requiring longer cooking added earlier and those requiring less cooking added later. This tempered oil is then used as the start of dish preparation, or, in this recipe, at the end of preparation.

The only issue with tempering is to make sure you do not burn the spices. Make sure the oil, or ghee, is hot, but not so hot as to burn the spice. Check the temperature by dropping a single cumin seed into the oil. It should sizzle, but not immediately change colour.

I find that I get the best results by bruising the spices before adding them, particularly cardamom pods. By bruising them first they will burst in the oil and release their seeds.

The unusual ingredient in our version of this recipe is the pickled chillies. They give a unique flavour to the dish, very different to fresh or dried chillies. There is a recipe for this chilli achaar in this book, or you get some from a good Indian grocer. Buy as small a container as you can, because you won’t use much of it, although it does feature in several recipes in this book.

If you cannot get chilli achaar, some chopped fresh whole red chillies can be substituted.

This use of pickled chillies is an Assamese influence.

For this recipe, we use the same lentils and preparation as the yellow dal recipe in this book. You can use almost any other kind of lentil, or mix them, but you will need to adjust the cooking times appropriately.

The consistency of your final dish is a matter of personal preference.  I would, however,  caution you against it being too thin or soupy. We like a creamy dal, with a bit of texture from the lentils, so we don’t stir a lot during cooking. If you like a smother dal, you might use a whisk to break down the dal. Either way, be sure to check the consistency as the recipe suggests, but remember that a little extra water goes a long way.

This tarka dal would be ideal with the vegetable pulao in this book, for a simple, wholesome and easy to prepare family meal.

the recipe

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for the dal

to temper

to serve


for the dal

  • Place the two dals, turmeric and asafoetida with 1 litre of water in a small pan. Bring to the boil, stirring frequently.
  • When boiling, reduce heat to low and skim off any foam. Simmer for 10 minutes, stirring frequently. The water should be about the same level as the dal. Seal the pot, turn heat off and allow to stand for 10 minutes so the lentils absorb all the water. Stir occasionally.
  • Whilst the lentils are cooking, heat half the ghee in a small pan and add the onions. Fry for ten minutes until the onions darken. Use a slotted spoon to remove the onions from ghee and set aside to drain on some absorbent paper.

to temper

  • When the dal is almost ready to serve, add the remaining ghee to the pan the onions were cooked in and bring to a medium heat.
  • Add the mustard seeds, cumin seeds and curry leaves. When they sizzle and pop add the ginger and garlic. Stir frequently for two minutes, or until raw garlic aroma has gone. Add the pickled chillies and half the reserved fried onions and mix well.

to serve

  • Place dal into a serving dish then pour in the lemon juice and gently mix. Check the consistency of the dal, adding a little hot water if it is too thick.
  • Pour the tempered oil, spices and onions over the top of the dal and gently swirl into the dal. Do not mix.
  • Sprinkle with the garam masala, decorate with the remaining fried onions, garnish with coriander and serve.


  • If you like a smoother dal, use a whisk to break down the dal before adding the lemon juice.
  • Check the consistency of the dal before adding the tempered oil. If you think you need water, add it one tablespoon at a time.
  • Pickled chillies are available from Indian grocers, or you can find our recipe here.

private notes

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Serving: 200 g | Calories: 450 kcal | Carbohydrates: 52 g | Protein: 18 g | Fat: 20 g | Saturated Fat: 11 g | Cholesterol: 48 mg | Sodium: 305 mg | Potassium: 1041 mg | Fiber: 15 g | Sugar: 2 g | Vitamin A: 205 IU | Vitamin C: 43.2 mg | Calcium: 103 mg | Iron: 5.1 mg

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