Tarka Dhal

Tarka Dhal is a lentil based dish frequently found on the menu in UK Indian restaurants. It is very easy to prepare but does take a little time in the cooking, about 45 minutes. It is normally served as a side dish but can form the basis of a full meal when served with rice or bread and another, preferably vegetable based dish.

The “Tarka” part of the name really refers to the “final fry” and not to any particular ingredient the recipe, this fry up adds a delightful smoothness and depth of flavour to what otherwise can be a relatively uninspiring dish.

The quantity below serves 4 to 6 as a side dish.


  • 175g (6oz) red split lentils. Other pulses can be substituted but the cooking time and quantity of water will need to be adjusted.
  • 1l (1.75 pints) water
  • 2 or 3 thin (3mm) slices of ginger, bruised
  • 1/2 teaspoon turmeric
  • 1 teaspoon salt – adjust to taste
  • 4 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 2 or 3 small dried red chillis (a pinch of chilli or cayenne powder can be substituted), adjust to taste
  • 1 rounded teaspoon of cumin seeds, as an alternative with slightly different flavours you can try black mustard seeds (fry until they pop) or fennel seeds (sizzle as for cumin)
  • 2 large cloves garlic, very finely chopped, adjust quantity for size of garlic cloves – as an alternative, if you have it, try a large pinch of asafoetida
  • 1 heaped tablespoon of chopped fresh coriander leaves (optional)


Wash the lentils and pick them over to remove any debris or small pieces of stone (not uncommon). Please the lentils, water, ginger and turmeric into a largish heavy pan, stir one or twice to mix in the turmeric and bring to a boil. Take care not to let the mixture boil over or let the lentils stick to the bottom of the pan. Reduce the heat and partially cover, allow the mixture to simmer very gently for about 15 to 20 minutes until the lentils soften and change colour to yellow. If necessary, add a little more water , the objective is to get a slightly thick consistency, not too runny.

Add the salt and stir, remove the mixture from the heat.

Heat the oil in a mall frying pan. We keep one especially for this process as the oil needs to be very hot, almost smoking. Add the chillis, cumin seeds and fry for a moment or two until the seeds begin to take on colour (if using mustard seeds, fry until they start popping), add the garlic and continue to fry until the garlic starts browning.

At this point you must be very careful as the next stage can be quite dangerous as hot oil tends to splash.

Remove the cover form the lentils and immediately add the hot spiced oil to the lentils. Cover the pan immediately, leave to stand for a few minutes.

Gently re-heat if necessary. If garnishing with chopped coriander, add this, stir one or twice and re-cover the pan.

Serving Suggestion:

Serve with practically any Indian meat or vegetarian dish and rice or bread.

Tarka Dhal can benefit from being prepared in advance and kept in the fridge overnight or even frozen for longer periods. If you do this, do not add the chopped coriander until you re-heat the dish just before serving.

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