Dahl Saag

Lentils with Spinach

A friend of mine, Elaine, once tried my dahl saag at a party I threw. She liked it so much, she hunted out a recipe on the BBC Good Food site and diligently cooked it at home. She was SO disappointed with the results that she begged me to give her this recipe.

Dahl (dal, daal) is a dish made from pulses: lentils, mung beans, urid dahl and their like. Its consistency can be anything from soup-like (great from dipping bread into), sauce-like (to accompany a dry-ish main dish), through to dry. It can be quite plain or it can be made more interesting with the addition of a tempering (tarka/tadka) once it's cooked, where freshly fried spices are added at the end. While dahls are incredibly important to an Indian meal, they are not usually considered the main event.

My dahl saag is fairly dry, and is tempered with caramelized onions and chillies at the end. I use lentilles vertes, which are better at remaining intact during the cooking. Though you could use green lentils for this, they break down more easily, and are much better suited to making saucier dahls.

There's a widely held perception I have come across that curries are even better the next day, when the flavours have been allowed to mingle. This flies in the face of everything I've learned about Indian cuisine, and it's certainly NOT true for this dahl. It's a joy to taste every single component when it's been freshly prepared. You can still eat it the next day...but it won't be nearly as flavourful.

At this point I have to come clean. When I went to the cupboard, I found I had no lentilles vertes...so I was forced to use green lentils. It's usually the spinach part I play around with; "saag" actually means "greens" in Hindi. I've used chard before and also (my personal favourite) beet tops. Today I decided to try kale. It was okay, but I wasn't keen on the stalks. I've not made this dish for a while now, and I'd forgotten quite how incredibly good it tastes. This is no second fiddle; this dahl is definitely the main event.

Serves 3 as a main with some cucumber raita and bread; 5 - 6 as a substantial side dish in an elaborate Indian meal.


For the lentils:

1 cup lentilles vertes (though green lentils will do)

1 tablespoon oil

1 teaspoon cumin seeds

1/2 teaspoon black mustard seeds

a fat clove of garlic, minced

2 1/2 teaspoons curry powder (I use mild)

1/2 teaspoon salt

3 cups of water

80g - 100g fresh spinach (or kale, chard, or beetroot tops)

For the tarka (the tempering):

2 tablespoons oil

1 red onion, halved and thinly sliced

1 chilli, finely sliced (I used a green bird's eye chilli)

1/2 teaspoon garam masala (or to taste)

a small squeeze of lemon juice

coriander leaves and lemon wedges to garnish (optional)

If you're unfamiliar with any of the ingredients, find out more about them here:



Heat the oil in a saucepan and add the cumin and mustard seeds. Cook for a minute or two...until they hopefully pop. Add the garlic and the curry powder and cook for another minute, stirring so it cooks evenly. Now add the lentils, salt, and 3 cups of water. Bring to a boil, pop on a lid, and turn down the heat. Simmer for 40 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add a splash of water if it begins to go dry.


Meanwhile, make the tarka. Heat the oil in a frying pan, add the sliced onions, and fry over a low heat for 15 - 20 minutes, stirring occasionally so they caramelize. Add the sliced chilli and cook for 5 minutes more.


When the lentils have had their 40 minutes, check that there's still a little water left in the pan and add the spinach (or in this case the kale - leaves only; the stalks aren't nice). Pop the lid back on and cook for a further 5 - 10 minutes.


To finish the dish, stir the cooked greens into the lentils, add the fried onions and stir to combine the lot. Sprinkle over the garam masala and squeeze in a little juice. Taste and adjust the salt, garam masala, and lemon if necessary.

Serve sprinkled with coriander leaves (only if everyone likes them!) and a good dollop of cucumber raita.

Any questions? You can use the comments form at the bottom of the page.

Did you know?

You'll find recipes at the back of all the books in the Send for Octavius Guy series:

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