Simple Lentils

Lal Daal

Every year, when I return from Karachi in the winter, along with memories of time spent with loved ones, there are other nuances and sensations that go deeper. Two are the most memorable. First, drifting off to a nap after a simple, home-cooked meal with the sounds of the city around me, chirping, cawing,  faint sounds of the ice cream truck jingle or the neighbor’s doorbell, intermittent chatter from the street, distant calls of the batli dabewala (street vendor). Second, the breathtaking sunsets, the low, looming sun, painting the sky in the softest of lilacs and pinks, bathing everything in blush, the soft sea breeze picking up. The beautiful illusion of the continuity of life in this tormented, soulful and beloved city.

This recipe is a simplest dish that says home to me like no other.

– 1 cup red lentils
– 2 whole tomatoes, peeled*
– 1/2 tsp. turmeric
– 1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper
– salt to taste


For tempering:
– 2 tbsp. olive oil
– 2 cloves garlic, sliced
– 1 shallot, sliced
– 1 tsp. cumin seeds
– 1 tsp. mustard seeds
– 4-5 curry leaves
– 2-3 red chili, dried


  1. Wash lentils in several changes of water.
  2. Combine with fresh water in a 2:1 ratio so that the lentils are submerged and bring to boil over medium-high heat.
  3. Add the tomatoes, turmeric and cayenne pepper, reduce heat to low and cook covered for 20-30 minutes.
  4. Check to see if the lentils and tomatoes have softened. If so, mash well with a slotted spoon, add salt and cover to cook again. At this point, you can also add some more water (1/2 cup) to thin out if needed (end consistency should be between stew and soup but not runny). Keep mashing frequently or simply use a blender. Once done, remove from heat and allow to cool slightly.
  5. In a separate heated pan, add the oil, cumin seeds and mustard seeds and allow to sizzle for 10-15 seconds. Then add garlic, curry leaves and the red chilies and cook till garlic starts to brown. Pour this oil mixture over the dish and cover quickly to let it smoke and flavor.

* Peeling tomatoes is easy and can be done ahead of time. Just prick the skin and blanch in boiling water for 15-20 seconds. The skin comes right off. Remove the tough part on top and they are ready to go.

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