Simple Lentils

Each year, on my return from wintertime in Karachi, along with memories of time spent with loved ones, there are other sights and sensations that resonate 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 dibewala (street vendor). Second, the breathtaking sunsets, the low, looming sun, painting the sky in luminous lilacs and pinks, bathing everything in blush, the soft sea breeze picking up and drifting to the land. The bittersweet illusion of the permanence of time in this tormented, soulful and beloved city.

This recipe is a simple 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
– 1/2 tsp. crushed black pepper
– salt to taste


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


  1. Wash lentils in several changes of water and soak for a couple of hours at least (this step requires some extra time but removes a lot of the sugars that lead to bloating and other nasty tummy issues).
  2. Drain and combine with fresh water in a 2:1 ratio so that the lentils are submerged and bring it to boil over medium-high heat.
  3. Add the tomatoes, turmeric, black pepper 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 (consistency should be between stew and soup but not runny). Keep mashing frequently or simply use a blender (but the latter only after the heat is off). Once done, remove from heat and allow to cool slightly.
  5. In a separate heated pan, add the oil/ ghee, cumin seeds and mustard seeds and let sizzle for 10-15 seconds. Then add garlic, curry leaves (will sputter so watch out) and the red chilies and cook till garlic starts to brown. Pour this mixture over the dish and cover quickly to let it smoke and flavor. Pair with classic steamed basmati rice and enjoy!

* 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 in the middle and they are ready to go.

** To make this dish vegan, just skip the ghee and add an extra tbsp. of olive oil.


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