Saucy dahl

Dahls. Let's start with what they're made from: whole or split (and polished or unpolished) lentils and small beans of various sorts. I regularly use whole mung beans, split red lentils, and whole green lentils. I tend to steer away from urid dahl (small black beans with a bitter taste) and toor dahl (the oily kind that I'm never sure what to do with), but I do use channa dahl (very small split chick peas - the only sort you really need to soak before cooking).

Each brings their own unique flavour to the recipe: lentils are slightly spicy, mung beans are creamy, and channa dahl understandably tastes like chick peas. All these can be used to make dry dishes or saucy dishes. They can even be made into broths.

Thinnish dahls are considered an essential component of any Indian meal. Why? Because they act as the equivalent of sauces and gravies. They are usually served separately for you to dip your bread into, or to spoon onto a portion of your rice. They work best alongside a dry main dish (as opposed to one with a lot of sauce). A thin, saucy dahl would go brilliantly with onion bhajis, for instance, but they'd also work with dishes like Anup's Mutter Paneer, which does have its own sauce but it's thick.

Two dishes with sauces? Again, why? Because they can provide a different flavour and texture - as long as the same ingredients do not feature - or, if they do, they are used in a different way. Indian cuisine is all about a balance of tastes and textures. If you make my dry dahl saag (lentils with spinach - preferably NOT with the kale!), you wouldn't make an accompanying dahl with more of the same lentils. You'd use mung beans or channa dahl instead, and you'd make the spicing different.

Why the need for a different kind of dahl? Though first and foremost you are trying to create a variety of flavours and textures, the combination of proteins from two different dahls is more complex than either of them on their own.

There's a very simple blueprint for creating dahls. It goes like this:

First, the spices the dahl will cook with (if any - I've seen recipes where they're only added at the end) are either fried or dry roasted. Then the dahl is added together with a quantity of water. Half a cup of dahl to one-and-a-half pints of water will generally produce a sauce of medium thickness, though still saucy. Half a cup to one-and-three-quarter pints of water will produce a thinner one.

It cooks for about an hour until the beans or lentils have started to break up and thicken the sauce, then fresh spices (again, if any) are fried (possibly along with fried onions, tomatoes, and the like), which get added right at the end. These final spices are a tempering known as a tarka (or tadka), and adding them turns the dahl into a tarka dahl. Without them, it's considered a plain dahl.

There's nothing especially authentic about the dahl I'm about to make, but it does taste surprisingly good - even using curry powder (which I'm assured does not exist in India). Feel free to mix your own spices, or to leave things out that you don't particularly like. Really the point here is to show you how to go about creating a saucy dahl with whatever you have at hand and to give you a rough idea about how much spicing you will need. There's no tarka at the end of this one, not even a little garam masala or a bit of chopped coriander leaf (both of which often get added even to plain dahls). It doesn't need it.

Makes enough for 4 - 6 people. Serve in individual dishes (or one large common dish) with spoons to accompany the main curry.


1 tablespoon of oil

1/2 an onion, finely chopped

1 clove of garlic, shredded

1 or more chillies, whole

2 teaspoons curry powder

10 - 20 small curry leaves (optional; I'm using dried)

1 tablespoon tomato puree (paste)

1/2 teaspoon tamarind paste

or the juice of a third of a lemon

1/2 cup of mung beans or lentils

1 1/2 - 1 3/4 pints of water (I used 1 1/2 pints)

a small handful of coriander leaves, chopped (optional)

a scant 1/2 teaspoon salt

a pinch of black pepper to finish

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



Fry the onions till they soften, then add the garlic and whole chilli and cook for a minute or two longer. Now add the curry powder, and cook that for another minute.


Add the mung beans, the leaves, and the pastes, and give it a stir.


Pour in the water (it will feel like you've added too much - but do not panic - you haven't!). Add the salt and bring it to a boil.

Pop on a lid and turn down the heat.


Simmer for 50 minutes (it may be shorter if you're using split dahls, or longer if you're using pre-soaked channa).

Et voilà! A really saucy, delicious addition to your meal. Actually this one is so thick, it could use a spot more water to loosen it. 

Add a pinch ground black pepper then taste and adjust the seasoning. Remove the chilli (or not) and serve. The curry leaves are edible, btw.

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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