Punjabi green lentil dhal – incredibly easy and incredibly tasty

Spice box

About two years ago, or perhaps a bit less, when I first started cooking Indian food, a very kind and generous British lady of Punjabi origin invited me to her home for what she jokingly called ‘a curry lesson’. I watched wide-eyed and scared. In awe of all the spice jars and containers dancing in front of my very own eyes. At a time, I knew and recognised a lot of them and had them in my own kitchen, but had precious little clue on what to do with them, if truth be told. That day was a turning point in my cooking in general for several reasons. The first, and perhaps the most important lesson, was to relax. Before, I was confused with all these spices, and scared I’m doing things wrongly. Watching her cook was amazing. She was instinctive, creative, spontaneous. ‘Shall we add a bit of this?… And what do you think that will taste?… I think I’ll do this….’ I relaxed in my mind, and in my attitude towards Indian food; I wasn’t ‘scared’ anymore and started trying things out. This is when the second lesson kicked in: trying things out, and getting to know my ingredients. See how it goes, and learn. Smell and taste. Learn which flavours go together, experiment. Watch what is happening at every stage. Feel and touch. Get involved with your food. See what it feels like at each stage. (Of course, this works with certain foods only.) I truly learnt only by trying and following my instincts. And then remembering and/or writing down what I’d done. And than doing it again.

If you recognise yourself in any of the above, maybe I could help you see that cooking Indian food doesn’t have to be daunting and complicated. Let’s have a look at this very simple Punjabi dhal. Simple in flavour, and simple in technique, but uncompromisingly delicious. Green lentils are simply cooked with turmeric, and then seasoned with a tarka of cumin seeds,fried onions (until brown), ginger and garlic, and then finished off with some garam masala.

Tarka is an Indian technique of frying spices in ghee or oil, sometimes with the addition of some combination of onions, garlic and chillies. This is done either at the beginning of cooking, or at the end. For more information, see Barbara’s post Teaching Tarka. If lentils are its body, tarka is the life and soul of the dhal. The tarka as a final flavouring gives it a character that makes it different from any other of its kind made with same lentils. It defines its origin as Punjabi like this one (with ghee, cumin and onions), South Indian (flavoured with curry leaves, mustard seeds and red chillies) or Bengali (with panch phoron, the characteristically Bengali five spice mix.)


Do try and make this, and when you do, smell the turmeric cooking with the lentils. Take a bit of lentils with a spoon and feel them with your fingertips. See how they feel on your tongue, between your teeth. Follow how they change in texture and flavour. When you’re making the tarka, watch for the bubbles around your wooden spoon that will tell you when the oil or ghee are hot enough for the cumin seeds to go in. When the cumin is in, watch how it sizzles and changes colour. Smell it. Don’t let it burn – things happen quickly with some spices. Now the onions. Watch them loose liquid, and then change colour from translucent, to golden through to reddish and then brown. How sweet they smell, how moreish they become. (See my post ‘Cooking Indian: How to Fry Onions’.)

Green lentils b&w

I adapted this recipe from Vicky Bhogal’s book ‘Cooking Like Mummyji’. I added a teaspoon of cumin seed at the beginning of the onion tadka, upped the chilli and garlic, and reduced the amount of garam masala. The latter is up to you and your tastes, but for me the cumin makes all the difference, and I urge you to try it. I really love the warming aroma of cumin seeds popped in ghee or oil in this dhal. At a pinch, you can use ground cumin if you don’t have cumin seeds, but please add it after the onions are browned (and not at the beginning, before the onions, because it will burn). The flavour is slightly different, but it will add the important cumin note to the dish.

Another change, a little unorthodox for Punjabi cooking perhaps, is that I added a pinch of sugar to the cooked lentils, like they do in Bengal. I find that the sugar round off the flavours really nicely, and mellows the dish.

Vicky calls the recipe ‘whole lentils cooked in a pressure cooker’. I didn’t cook them like that, so that doesn’t apply to me. Plus I find this title a bit too generic, so I’m changing the name to ‘Punjabi green lentils with deep brown onions and garam masala’.

Green lentils

I’ve made this dish a few times, and it’s always been a hit with Someone I Know And Love.  It goes really well with a dollop of yoghurt, some kale aloo, and chapatti. I have just made Anita’s garam masala, and can’t wait to cook this dhal again with it!

Someone I Know And Love has gone off for two weeks and taken our camera with him. No photos, but I will try to get a friend to exchange her photographic skills for some nosh.

This post is going to the wonderful Lisa for the event No Croutons Required. This month, we’re focusing on Indian soups and salads. Right up my street! I can’t wait to see the round-up.




Punjabi green lentils with deep

brown onions and garam masala


SOURCE:  adapted from Vicky Bhogal’s ‘Cooking Like Mummyji’


COOKING TIME: about 40 min

CUISINE: Indian, Punjabi

SERVES: 4 as a side dish, or 2 – 3 as a main


1 cup whole green lentils

1 tsp ground turmeric

1/2 tsp salt (or to taste)

a small pinch of brown sugar (optional)

1 tbsp ghee / vegetable oil

1 heaped tsp of cumin seeds

1 small yellow onion, sliced thinly (or chopped finely, if you wish)

2 cloves of garlic

1 tsp grated fresh ginger

2 – 3 birds eye green chillies, sliced

1/4 tsp Punjabi garam masala

chopped coriander for garnish (optional)


1. Put the lentils into a pan with 2 cups of water (for now, you might need more later if you want it runnier). Let it boil, and skim the scum from the top. Now add turmeric, and continue cooking until soft. When the lentils are soft, add the salt. Add a pinch of sugar if you want now. Add some warm water if you like your lentils less thick or even soupy. (Vicky leaves her lentils whole, but I like to mash some of them up to make the dish creamier.)

2. To make the tarka, first pop the cumin seeds in some hot ghee. First, heat the ghee or oil (it’s hot enough when it starts sizzling when you insert a wooden spoon in it), and then add the cumin. Fry for a few seconds, until the cumin releases its fragrance (watch out, it burns quickly). Then, add the onion, sprinkle it with salt, and fry until golden brown. Now add the chillies, ginger and garlic, and fry for some more, until they soften and loose their raw flavour. If the ginger starts sticking to the pan, add a little water and scrape off. (I usually chop the onion first, then while they’re frying, prepare garlic, ginger and chillies, and add it as I go.)

3. Pour the onion mixture into the dhal and stir through, leaving some tarka on top. Now add the garam masala.

4. Garnish with coriander if using, and serve with some chapattis or rice.


More dhals from this blog:

Bengali Red Dhal

Minty dhal (2 versions of  recipe)

Sri Lankan Coconut Dhal


More recipes with beans and lentils


Leave a comment


  1. You are right – cumin is the star in a Punjabi tarka! I am very fond of this type of tarka for my dals – only rarely will I add garam masala to it.

    Any new cuisine is daunting but it is so great when you get to the stage where you can be intuitive with it! I look forward to seeing the ways you will use the garam masala!


  2. have you tried whole lentils in the slow cooker/crockpot? put the tarka and the lentils and everything else in the slow cooker overnight. Less work, more flavour.


  3. Of course you know that I would love this recipe. Shame you didn’t get a photo, as I am sure it was a gorgeous dish.


  4. Yum. Try some jaggery if you can get some instead of sugar. Has its own unique flavour.

    I am off to get my antique slow cooker out – it is SO old – and try bee’s suggestion for dinner tonight.


  5. ANITA, I really love the cumin tarka, too. Thanks for the garam masala recipe. It really smells amazing.

    BEE, No, I haven’t tried it. Thanks for the tip. Will do. Though I love fresh tarka both for its fresh flavours and visual effects.

    LISA, I thought you might! 😀
    Will try to get a photo, I promise.

    GANGA, I will try to get some.

    I usually use brown sugar. Also, I have some lovely Mexican cane sugar which has a gorgeous warm, caramel flavour. A friend introduced me to it, and the idea of sprinkling it on some yoghurt. Simple, and divine.


  6. It is a daunting experience getting used to indian food. I have seen 2 extremes, people either love it or they cannot stand it at all! Your recipes & cooking shows how well u have embraced it. Maninas get your camera.. for your recipe sounds awesome…


  7. SOMA, I’m definitely at the love it end of the spectrum.

    My camera is in Sweden at the moment! 😦 The husband’s nicked it. We really ought to get a second one.


  8. That looks like one yummy dal, ok I am going to try it. I will pressure cook the dal though to make it cook fast. Do you have a pressure cooker ?
    Though I agree slow cooking gives more flavor


  9. Amen–relaxation is really the key to successful cooking of any kind. Having said that, all those Indian spices can be a bit daunting when they’re all lined up in a row!


  10. I made this yesterday, the easy way though but it sure tasted great. Didn’t even add the garam masala, cooked the dal with salt, turmeric, ginger, garlic, tomato and chilli in pressure cooker.

    Then did the tarka of cumin, onion.

    It was a warm comfort with yogurt


  11. Forgot to say thanks 🙂


  12. SANDEEPA, You’re most welcome! Hey, I can’t believe I tempted you to made it! :))) I’m so glad you liked it. I’ll try your version, too.

    No, I don’t have a pressure cooker, though I’m half looking to buy one. The only thing stopping me is lack of space at the moment. Can you recommend a good one?

    I cook my lentils without salt now (I mean I add the salt at the end), and I notice that they cook much more quickly like this.

    ON-LINE PASTRY CHEF – It sure is! Not the least because it brings concentration and enjoyment. As for the spices, since I got to know them better, they’re not daunting anymore.

    Do you cook Indian often? I noticed that dessert… 🙂


  13. Sounds great! Yummy combination.


  14. Thanks, Talita! And welcome to my blog!


  15. Sounds good. Nice recipe.


  16. pl show us some photos of it, would love to see how it turned out. bec we eat so much dahl at home, i try to be healthy and not do the tarka bit- i know it tastes very different as a result of that, but, one has to cut corners somewhere.

    my husb has been pestering me about putting up a post on dahl, but i am being really lazy about it…i know how to make it, as we eat it all the time, but i have never measured or timed it- what a pain!

    buona domenica.


  17. I’m sorry but I don’t have a camera at the moment, as our old one died on us a few months ago. I’ll post a photo as soon as I can, I promise.

    I’d love to see your dhal, so I’m joining in with your husband’s pleas. What’s in it? I adore dhals.


  18. honestly, not much-1 garlic clove, pinch turmeric, salt, chili pepper and tbsp or two of tomato sauce, just for colour. i mix two dahls- masoor and mung to get that velvety consistency. when i do do a tarka i do cumin, garlic slivers and my mother’s special addition- half a chopped tomato. LOTS of chopped cilantro/coriander for garnish. will try to put up a post soon.

    look forward to seeing your photos when you get a camera.

    best wishes, shayma


  19. Sounds good! And very healthy. I’d like to try the mung dhal – red lentil combo. I’m sure it’s great. I’ve been making a channa dhal – mung dhal – red lentils dhal with coconut, and I love it. Which reminds me I should post that soon.


  20. Helen

     /  1 December, 2009

    Thank you for this recipe!

    I am going to make it soon, using a slow-cooker. However, I wanted to know whether I make the tarka separately, as indicated above, and then add it into the dahl in the slow-cooker, or do I put in all the ingredients at the same time, and allow time to mix in the flavours etc.

    Forgive me if the answer to my question should be self-explanatory. It will be the first time that I make dahl!


  21. Hi Helen, and welcome to my blog! Please make the tarka separately, and add it to the lentils at the very end.

    I’d also like to add that in this dhal, it’s important to brown the onions – until they’re nearly copper colour, but not burnt!

    Most dhals use tarka as a final flavouring. But, you could do what you said, and at the end, heat some oil/ghee, add a tsp of cumin seeds, wait for them tu splutter (10 s or so), and then add the garlic. Stir and remove from the heat so the garlic doesn’t burn. Add this to the lentils at the end, just before serving. You can even reserve a bit of the tarka and use it as a garnish/topping!

    Hope this helps. Let me know how it went!


  22. Maninas, I am going to make this soup, it sounds so delicious. I think I have all the ingredients at home, except the birds eye green chillies and Punjabi garam masala. I think I have to ask around see where I can find them.


  23. my mouth is watering! Love that cumin!


  24. It’s one of my favourites, too. (Also, one of the top posts on this blog, according to search stats.)


  25. deanna

     /  9 January, 2011

    Delicious! I highly recommend you try this recipe! I’ve tried a few different lentil and dal recipes, and so far this is my favorite! Thank you for sharing this.


  26. Mohan Singh

     /  11 March, 2011

    Yes after so many years living as a Sikh Punjabi man but in a different culture, I yearn to cook my own dishes the way Mom used to…your dish is very similar to the way she did it…especially the tarka…(I always thought that meant frying something separately as an addition to the main dish as in your recipe) we had simple fare like this with chappatis and another veg dish…meat or fish once in a while..and I guess the lentils are definitely a healthy diet. At 51, my hair is still thick and lustruous and my body is slim, although for the last 15 years I have not ate as I used to as a boy. I always try and get my kids to eat chappatis and dal, and they love it..my wife is not Indian.

    I also worked in a chappatti side shop(stall) as a boy in a Chinese coffeeshop in Singapore…one day I sat down to eat 7 chappatis with dal and some keema. The shop owner came by and counted the number of chappatis and was amazed that I could eat all that…hahaha.
    Anyway thanks for sharing.


  27. LBergstrome

     /  19 January, 2012

    Just arrived home to a delicious smelling house! Looking forward to dinner tonight. Thanks for the recipe!


  28. Psychology Student #-55

     /  22 April, 2012

    Such wonderful writing! I was looking for a recipe for green lentil dhal and hit your blog through google – and I’m so happy I did 🙂 Much more than just a recipe, you show a real passion for and understanding of the food that makes your writing a pleasure to read 🙂


  29. Nate

     /  15 October, 2012

    Thanks for this delicious recipe. It was my first time cooking a dhal, but it definitely won’t be the last!


  30. Looks like a nice dahl recipe. Maybe if another type of dahl is added such as chana dahl it will be even better!


  31. Thanks for this… I’m making it right now! Could I ask, do you cover your lentils while simmering? I ask because my 2 cups of water have almost entirely evaporated within about 10 mins of cooking (simmering, no lid) and I’ve added at least one more cup to keep it going until the lentils soften. It smells amazing. I can’t wait for dinner!


    • I do, yes. Simmering is low boil though, so should be ok in a medium pan (I’ll add the pan size to the recipe). It could be your cooker is stronger than mine, too, so the lentils are cooking more quickly.

      Hope you enjoy it! Let me know how it went.


      • Thanks for the reply – I’ll cook them with the lid on next time, which should make a difference (it was on a very gentle simmer, so I don’t think it’s the heat). It’s a delicious dish!


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