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This is a recipe for a kind of spiced red lentil soup that is served with rice (usually Basmati rice). It is extremely easy and fun to make, and the spices can be adapted to suit both your taste and the available ingredients. The red lentils (dal) are boiled fairly plainly until they are completely cooked, at which point hot spiced oil (tarka) is stirred in to provide a deliciously spicy, slightly burned flavour.

First, get the dal started. To do this you will need:

  • 1 cup of red lentils
  • 3-4 cups of water
  • 1-inch square of peeled fresh ginger root
  • 1/4 teaspoon of turmeric
  • 1 teaspoon of salt

Pick through the lentils to make sure that there are no stones or other unwanted additions among them. If you buy the best lentils you should be able to avoid - or at least minimalize - this step. Then place the lentils into a sieve and wash them under running water for several minutes.

Place the washed lentils in a large pot, add the water, and bring to the boil. Then remove and discard any foam that has accumulated on top.

Now throw in the ginger, turmeric, and salt. Stir, turn down the heat so that the dal is simmering, and partially cover the pot. Now you just keep an eye on the heat and stir the mixture occasionally to make sure it doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pot and burn.

You’ll know the dal is done when all of the individual 'grains' have broken up and the contents of the pot have separated into a thick soup on the bottom and a much more watery solution on top. When it reaches this stage, stir it all together one last time, then turn off the heat and completely cover the pot.

Now it’s time to make the tarka. To do this you’ll need:

  • 2 tablespoons of cooking oil
  • Spices of your choice (see 'About the spices' below for more information)

Heat the oil in a pan. When it’s very hot, add the spices, stir for a few seconds, then pour the oil and spice mixture into the pot containing the dal. Quickly stir it all together, then cover the pot again and leave it for a couple of minutes to allow the full flavour of the spices and the spiced oil to permeate the dal. Serve with fresh boiled rice, preferably Basmati.

About the spices.

Although not unpleasant, dal on its own would be fairly bland and uninspiring. It is the mixture of spices and other seasonings which really bring this meal to life, and which allow you to develop your own unique version of the recipe. If you are not confident using Indian spices, try mixing and matching a few of the ideas below to see what works for you, and then experiment from there.

    Try any or all of the following seeds. They should be fried until they pop, usually 10-15 seconds if the oil is hot enough.
  • 1 teaspoon whole cumin seeds
  • 1/2 teaspoon whole black mustard seed
  • 1/2 teaspoon whole onion seeds (kalonji)
  • 1/4 teaspoon whole cloves
  • seeds from 3 whole green cardamom pods (discard the pods themselves)

    Start frying any or all of the following just before the seeds and ground spices.
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2 1-inch long sticks of Indian cinnamon bark
  • 2 dried whole red chilli peppers
  • 3 whole green cardamom pods

    If you’re adding any of the following ingredients, fry these until they’re nearly done and then throw the other ingredients in with them. You may need to start with the oil a little cooler in order to avoid burning.
  • 1 finely chopped onion
  • 2 cloves of finely chopped garlic
  • 2 roughly-chopped fresh green chilli peppers
  • 1/2 teaspoon finely grated fresh ginger root

You can also sprinkle a garnish on top when the dal is served. My favourites are finely chopped fresh coriander (cilantro) leaves and finely minced fresh ginger root. Go easy with both of these to start with. You can always add more if you want to.

Obviously, the above list is by no means exhaustive; there are plenty of other spices and seasonings that would work equally well. Having said that, it is certainly not necessary to add a lot of ingredients in order to get good results. Some of the most enjoyable tarkas I have made have been thrown together using a few forgotten spices found in friends’ kitchens. In fact, that’s an excellent way to discover new ingredients. I would never have used allspice (I don't like the smell of it) had it not been one of a very few spices available to me on one occasion. As it turns out, it works really well with dal. So be brave, be inventive, be prepared to make one or two mistakes, and above all enjoy yourself.

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