A Sunny Dish of Red Lentil Dal

Red lentil dal with green peas, warming and cheerful.

Red lentil dal with green peas, warming and cheerful.

The lentils were probably an impulse buy at the co-op. They looked so pretty in a pinky orange sort of way. I brought them home, and was stumped for a while about what to do with them. Every once in a while, weary of the kitchen rut I get into from time to time, I will buy something I’ve never cooked in order to challenge myself, and these lentils were supposed to make me come up with something different.


I have tended to use lentils in soup, or cooked and cold in a salad. For years, I’ve made a spiced porridge sort of dish from India, out of mung beans, called dal, and I like it very much. Then recently I saw a recipe for dal made with lentils, and thought, oh, right, of course, lentils are like mung beans, even dried peas. They all cook to a fine mush. Made with mung beans the result looks a little muddy. Made with red lentils, however, the result is a cheerful sunshine color.

This dish has many of the flavors one finds in curry. It doesn’t have to be bitingly hot with red peppers, but if you like that, add your favorite capsicum to taste. Otherwise, keep it mild. I served it one night with a curry dish, and, a couple days later, as lunch. It will absorb cooked vegetables, and I enhanced mine with some leftover peas. Drop some chutney into the middle of it and serve with rice.
Red Lentil Dal
1 ½ cups red lentils
3-4 cups of water
1 small red onion, chopped
½ cup tomatoes, canned crushed or fresh chopped
Dash of cayenne pepper, to taste
½ teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon ground coriander
½ teaspoon ground turmeric
2 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon vegetable oil or butter
1 teaspoon whole cumin seeds
½ teaspoon black or yellow mustard seeds
1 cup canned coconut milk
In a heavy saucepan, mix the lentils, onion, tomatoes, cayenne, cumin, coriander, turmeric, and salt. Add the water and cook over a medium heat, stirring occasionally. When the mixture simmers, reduce the heat and cook for a half to three-quarters of an hour, or until the lentils cook apart. Cooking until all the lentils are soft, adding water to prevent sticking.
In a small frying pan on medium heat, warm the vegetable oil or butter then add the cumin seeds and the mustard seeds. Put a lid on the pan, and when you hear the mustard seeds pop take them off the heat and add them to the lentil mixture. Add the coconut milk. Cook for ten minutes or so and serve.
Makes four to five servings.

Sandy Oliver

About Sandy Oliver

Sandy Oliver Sandy is a freelance food writer with the column Taste Buds appearing weekly since 2006 in the Bangor Daily News, and regular columns in Maine Boats, Homes, and Harbors magazine and The Working Waterfront. Besides freelance food writing, she is a pioneering food historian beginning her work in 1971 at Mystic Seaport Museum, where she developed a fireplace cooking program in an 1830s house. After moving to Maine in 1988, Sandy wrote, Saltwater Foodways: New Englanders and Their Foods at Sea and Ashore in the 19th Century published in 1995. She is the author of The Food of Colonial and Federal America published in fall of 2005, and Giving Thanks: Thanksgiving History and Recipes from Pilgrims to Pumpkin Pie which she co-authored with Kathleen Curtin. She often speaks to historical organizations and food professional groups around the country, organizes historical dinners, and conducts classes and workshops in food history and in sustainable gardening and cooking. Sandy lives on Islesboro, an island in Penobscot where she gardens, preserves, cooks and teaches sustainable lifeways.