Tarka dal is a simple lentil curry that's a hit every time. With just a few aromatic spices, you can transform a few humble lentils into a creamy, intensely flavourful Indian dish, which can be served on its own, or as a side dish.
It's my go-to dish to order at an Indian restaurant, because the flavours are just unreal, but it can be made at home in just 30 minutes. It's perfect scooped up with some chapattis or naan bread!
Lentils are so underrated. They may be a cheap and humble ingredient, but that's what's so wonderful about them! You can cook lentils in so many different ways (here are some lentil recipe ideas - even lentil pizza is good!), and it doesn't take much to transform them into something truly special.
Tarka dal (also known as tadka dal) is one of my all-time favourite lentil recipes. It's a simple lentil curry that's made with the most irresistible, aromatic ingredients - like toasted spices, fried onions and garlic - which really bring the lentils to life.
Served with rice or naan bread, or scooped up in chapattis, tarka dal never disappoints.
❤️ Why You'll Love This Recipe
- It tastes incredible.
- It takes only 30 minutes to cook.
- You can serve it on its own as a main course, or as an Indian side dish alongside your favourite curry - like my easy falafel curry, for example.
- It's easy to adapt by swapping the spices, or adding extra vegetables.
- It's vegan, gluten-free, and super healthy - but still tastes amazing.
Here's what you'll need to make this simple lentil curry:
A few ingredient notes:
- red lentils. Red lentils cook more quickly than brown and green lentils, and end up much softer, so they're perfect for tarka dal. You can find out more about the different types of lentils here. For this recipe, I wouldn't recommend using brown or green lentils.
- chopped chillies. I used frozen ones, as I don't use fresh chillies often enough to get through a whole pack without wasting some. Frozen vegetables are great for reducing food waste, and they come pre-chopped too! Feel free to use fresh red chillies if you prefer.
- onion and garlic
- ground spices - I used turmeric, cumin, cinnamon and coriander.
- tomato paste
- cilantro for garnish is optional, but recommended!
See the printable recipe card below for detailed ingredient quantities.
👌 Top tip
If you don't want to keep too many different spices in the kitchen, garam masala is a great option for Indian cooking. It is a blend of various spices that gives a great base for most Indian-style curries, rather than buying each spice individually.
You can buy garam masala online, on Amazon US.
🔄 Ingredient Swaps
Feel free to make this recipe your own - it's really easy to customise.
Here are a few ways you could adapt this recipe:
- If you don't have the spices I've listed, you can absolutely try a different combination. For example, swap the cinnamon for nutmeg, or add some smoked paprika instead of the cumin. Obviously the end result will end up tasting slightly different, but small changes should still taste good.
- If you like to get some extra vegetables into your food wherever you can, try adding some frozen peas or spinach to the lentils as they cook.
- Stir through some coconut milk or cream before serving for an extra luxurious lentil curry.
I always use a silicone spoon when cooking a fragrant curry, or anything else with a strong flavour - you can see my favourite bright pink one in almost all of my recipe photos!
Unlike with a wooden spoon, silicone doesn't absorb flavours from your cooking, so you can use it for curry one day, and custard the next, without any flavour contamination or staining. Silicone spoons are even dishwasher safe, to help with thorough washing.
Other than that, you don't need any specialist equipment to make this lentil curry. It's a one pot meal, so just a decent saucepan is all you need!
Here's how to make this beautiful tarka dal - see below for the printable recipe with detailed ingredients and instructions.
Step 1: Begin by cooking the aromatics in a pan with a dash of oil - this includes the garlic, onion, chillies, and all of the spices.
Step 2: Add the tomato paste, and cook for a few more minutes until the mixture is well cooked (your house should smell incredible by now!).
Step 3: Add the red lentils and some water, and bring to a gentle simmer. Allow to cook until the lentils are soft, then serve.
👌 Top tip
As soon as the lentils are completely soft, you can eat your tarka dal. However, if you have time, I would really recommend leaving it to simmer for a while longer (perhaps another 10 minutes), until the lentils have broken right down. It makes the end result extra creamy and irresistible!
💭 Tarka Dal FAQs
'Tarka' means using spices cooked in oil or ghee. And the word 'dal' usually refers to lentils. When you put those two concepts together, you get tarka dal! It is an Indian side dish that begins with cooking various spices and other aromatic ingredients in oil.
You can cook your dal to be as spicy as you like it - either add extra chillies, for a really hot dish, or skip them entirely if you like your curry to be milder. Even without the chillies, the recipe contains plenty of spices, which add heaps of flavour without adding a spicy heat.
I'm sure the tarka dal I buy from my favourite Indian restaurant is cooked with a lot more oil or ghee than I would use at home, so is perhaps more of a 'special occasion' kind of dish. However, this homemade version is made with just one Tablespoon of oil, and plenty of healthy whole ingredients - so there's no reason this version shouldn't be considered 'healthy' as part of a balanced diet.
Tarka dal can be considered to be a side dish or a main course, depending on what you serve it with. This time I served mine with just some chapattis on the side (perfect for scooping up the lentils!), but I also love to serve it alongside some rice and another tasty vegetable curry.
Yes! This recipe is perfect for batch cooking and then freezing. Just cook it fully, then freeze any leftovers in an air-tight tub (you can double or triple the recipe if you want more leftovers!). To reheat, use a microwave, or a pan on the stovetop - you may need to add an extra splash of water when reheating.
📖 Printable Recipe
Easy Tarka Dal (Vegan Red Lentil Curry)
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- 1 Tablespoon oil
- 1 onion, diced
- 2 cloves garlic, finely diced
- 1 teaspoon chopped mild red chillies (I used frozen)
- ½ teaspoon ground turmeric
- ½ teaspoon ground cumin
- ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
- ½ teaspoon ground coriander
- 1 Tablespoon tomato puree / paste
- 180 g (~ 1 cup) red lentils
- 500 ml (~ 2 cups) water
- 1 teaspoon salt
- Fresh coriander (cilantro), to garnish (optional)
- Heat the oil in a saucepan, and add the onion, garlic, chillies, and the 4 spices. Cook over a medium heat for about 5 minutes, until the onion has begun to soften. Add the tomato puree, and cook for a few more minutes, stirring regularly.
- Add the red lentils, water and salt, and bring to a gentle simmer (medium heat). Stirring regularly, allow the lentils to cook until they are soft, and most of the excess water has been absorbed. If the mixture begins to dry up before the lentils are completely soft, add a splash more water.
- The tarka dal will be ready to eat as soon as the lentils are completely soft, but if you have a little extra time, I recommend leaving it to simmer gently for a bit longer (perhaps an additional 10 minutes after the lentils have softened), as the lentils will begin to break down, and will make the dal extra creamy. If you do cook the lentils for a little longer, you'll probably need a little extra water.
- Serve topped with fresh coriander (cilantro), if desired.
Nutritional information is approximate, and will depend on your exact ingredients. Please calculate your own nutritional values if you require accuracy for health reasons.