Help me demystify Indian lentil soup
September 15, 2010 10:25 AM   Subscribe

I love the lentil soups and soup-like lentil side dishes I get in Indian restaurants and would love to make them at home, but I don't have the slightest clue where to start. Help?

I'm a food geek and a fairly accomplished cook, but trying to find recipes to start playing around with for this particular dish is a little overwhelming. Every Indian lentil soup/soup-like side dish I have had in restaurants seems to have a different name even though they all seem relatively similar to me (thick, soup-like, yellowish, tasty), recipe searches for "Indian lentil soup" or "dal" turn up a few dozen different recipes (many of which aren't actually for soup) and I don't know which are similar to the dish I'm trying to replicate, and there are a zillion different types of lentils available at my local Indian markets. Can you help me get a clue about Indian lentil soup? Help me refine my search by suggesting common names for the dish I'm looking for? Share your favorite recipes?
posted by rhiannonstone to Food & Drink (15 answers total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Very similar, very recent thread.
posted by aintthattheway at 10:28 AM on September 15, 2010

dal makhani (butter dal) may be what you're thinking of; if not, it's a good place to start. Here's a recipe for it. You need Indian black lentils for it (urad dal), along with regular ol' kidney beans.
posted by vorfeed at 10:33 AM on September 15, 2010

I'm a big fan of Madhur Jaffrey's recipes and her book, Madhur Jaffrey's Curry Bible. There are some great dhals in there as well as a very good sambar.
posted by rhymer at 10:35 AM on September 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

I have a cookbook by Chandra Padmanabhan called Dakshin : Vegetarian Cuisine from South India that has a ton of these, and they are generally awesome! The various classes of dal stew and soup have names like sambar, rasam and kootu if you wanted to search for recipes on the web.
posted by Ahab at 10:36 AM on September 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Also, I really recommend the 660 Curries cookbook. It has 140 pages of legume curries, and explains the difference between the kinds of dal and their uses... plus you can branch out into other kinds of Indian cooking from there. Madhur Jaffrey is also a great recommendation.
posted by vorfeed at 10:40 AM on September 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

660 Curries is an excellent book for an amazing variety of Indian dishes, including lentils. Very simple recipes that produce great results, with a discussion of the necessary ingredients to get that authentic flavour.
posted by slogger at 10:46 AM on September 15, 2010

Sorry for the multiple posts, but I forgot to mention: it's worth investing in a good stovetop pressure cooker if you're going to be cooking a lot of dal. These are ubiquitous in Indian kitchens, and will take the dal-cooking stage from an hour or two down to 20 minutes with no loss of flavor or texture. Presto makes great ones you can get for $50 or so.
posted by vorfeed at 10:46 AM on September 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: To be a little more specific, the dish I'm trying to replicate is generally pretty yellow (though I don't know if that means it uses yellow lentils or just that it contains turmeric or another spice that colors it yellow) and doesn't have any other identifiable main ingredients besides lentils--that is, no big chunks of veggies (except sometimes maybe onions), no other beans, no raisins, etc.
posted by rhiannonstone at 10:57 AM on September 15, 2010

Response by poster: OK, thanks to following some links from the discussion aintthattheway linked to, it seems I'm probably looking for Masoor Dal (made with red lentils which "turn golden in color" when cooked), which is a great place for me to start. Thank you! I'd still love favorite tried-and-true recipes.
posted by rhiannonstone at 11:10 AM on September 15, 2010

Best answer: sounds like you might be looking for a gujrati dal made from toovar/tuvar dal lentils. i learned from my mother but here's a link.

if you need help...memail me!
posted by UltraD at 12:04 PM on September 15, 2010

Best answer: Try this recipe from Frances Lam on

Cut way back on the salt the recipe calls for, unless you like your daal really salty. I also don't pour the daal over rice (as the directions say), but I do eat it with rice. I have made this daal over and over and it's really good! The tadka (the spice/cilantro/garlic/hot pepper topping) at the end really makes it.
posted by infodiva at 12:50 PM on September 15, 2010

Best answer: You'll get better results if you don't search for Indian lentil soup as these yellow lentils aren't really eaten as a soup in India. They're usually eaten with rice or flatbreads as one of a number of side dishes. For example, some white rice, mixed with the yellow dal plus a little mango pickle on the side would be a common way in which to eat it -- known in Hindi as daal-chawal (lentil-rice). There are hundreds of variations but the basic technique is very simple. Here's a good example of a recipe:
posted by peacheater at 2:10 PM on September 15, 2010

fast and easy: wash and rinse 3/4 dry dal (or chickpea halves), 1/4 dry red lentils, boil them in pressure cooker with water, salt, garam masala, turmeric, chili powder. While boiling, fry some garlic slices, ginger dice, and (dried or fresh) chili peppers. When boiled to satisfaction (just takes a few minutes) add the fried stuff plus same spices again to taste. Omnomnom!
posted by meijusa at 2:21 PM on September 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Did you maybe eat mulligatawny soup? Dal is thick, but it's chili-thick, not soup-thick.

Sorted by lentil shade, here's a red mulligatawny, a vegetarian green one, and a vegetarian yellow.
posted by Sallyfur at 3:43 PM on September 15, 2010

Best answer: Lentils are such a mainstay of Indian cooking that there are as many ways to prepare it as there are regions of India, and that's part of the reason for the bewildering array of recipes you're finding. Especially because the recipes tend to be for "special" kinds of daal, while what you're looking for (I think) is the kind of daal that doesn't really have a special name, that most people just call daal, which means lentils. It's a simple, homey dish, something that people eat every day at dinner and pack in their lunchboxes. In much of North India, this daal is somewhere between a sauce and a soup; depending on whether you're in a rice-growing or wheat-growing region, it's either eaten poured over rice, sopped up with flat bread, or drunk from a bowl. I've found that Indian restaurants in the US have trouble classifying it exactly: if they serve it as a soup, in a bowl before the meal, it confuses their Indian customers, who expect it as an adjunct to the meal itself, but most Americans see it more as a soup and prefer it that way.

To clarify on what some other posters have said, I don't think what you're looking for is a South Indian curry like sambar or rasam (these are delicious, but as the vast majority of Indian restaurants in the West are North Indian, you probably haven't had much chance to try them). I also don't think it's dal makhani ("butter lentils," which is very rich and thick and usually made with black lentils, and I think what Sallyfur is thinking of when she says that dal is "chili-thick"), because it's not being served as a main dish and it's not (usually) made with black lentils. I also don't think it's mulligatawny soup, which is a spicy, Anglo-South Indian dish that often has meat in it.

So, how to make it? Daal can be made with several varieties of lentils: toovar or toor daal (pigeon peas), masoor daal (red lentils), yellow split peas (mostly in Americanized Indian cooking). Other varieties can be used (the black daal makhani lentils, urad daal, make a tasty plain daal too), and vary by region. But you should be able to pick up some variety of red or yellow lentils at your local ethnic grocer. These kind of daals start to fall apart after being cooked for a while, turning into the "broth" of the daal. The flavoring also varies from region to region, but generally involves fresh onion, garlic, ginger, and chili peppers; cumin seeds, mustard seeds, and turmeric. Sometimes the spice mixture known as garam masala (often available in ground or whole form at ethnic food stores) is used to flavor the daal. Often the lentils will be cooked on their own, with just salt and water, and then mixed with a flavor base called a tarka, which consists of onions and garlic-ginger paste fried to disintegration with aromatic spices. Barbara Fisher of Tigers & Strawberries has a wonderful description of how a tarka works and how to make one, including her recipe for masoor daal here. Also check out her recommendations on cooking onions for use in Indian food, which IMHO is a key to getting that good, rich, Indian flavor (without resorting to two sticks of butter, a la Dal Makhani). Both the dal chawal posted by infodiva and UltraD's Gujarati toovar daal recommendations look like good choices too for a solid, homestyle daal.
posted by bookish at 6:42 PM on September 15, 2010 [5 favorites]

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