I was vegetarian for eight years or thereabouts, growing up. I loved it from the start and felt that I would never need meat again. However, I was doomed to fail because, like many, I did vegetarianism badly. I was skinny, pale, had issues with my joints and digestion, and suffered from headaches… all the classic signs of a poor diet.

I simply didn’t take enough care in balancing what I ate, living mainly on carbohydrates and, eventually, black coffee; hardly a decent diet for a growing youngster. Try as my mother did (if you’re reading this, Mum, I swear I’m not implicating you) to get the recommended “five a day” onto my plate, if you choose a certain lifestyle you must take responsibility for doing it properly, and take responsibility I did not (believing myself to be – as we are wont to do in our teens – invincible).

I buckled at last at 18, when confronted with lamb cooked over an open fire by a river in Herefordshire, and meat quickly re-entered my diet. Almost immediately I began to see the health problems that had plagued me through puberty melt away, and over the years that followed I began not to recognise myself; consistent colour in my cheeks and meat on my bones, as my grandmother was so fond of chuckling in delight over my new omnivorous diet.

I have never lapsed into a second wave of vegetarianism. However, at the wizened age of twenty-two, having fully recovered (and then some) from my deathly thin teenage years, the more I learn about the health and environmental implications of meat consumption, the closer I get to cutting it out of my diet again, once and for all. I rarely cook with meat as it is, due in no small part to how costly it is to eat at least even vaguely decent stuff. When I do eat it – perhaps once or twice a week – I enjoy every bite. For the most part, however, my diet is meat free.

To make that existence feasible, I have a handful of go-to vegetarian ingredients that I usually combine in some form, and serve with a side of greenery for a decent meal: eggs, brown rice, sweet potato, tofu, more eggs, aubergine, peppers, quinoa, avocado and, as you’ve probably guessed, lentils.

tarka dhal lentils

I’m super-fond of those little pulses; they’re low in calories, basically fat free, high in fibre, full of good protein, quick and easy to cook, ludicrously cheap, substantial, versatile and completely delicious. However, I’ve met people who find lentils an intimidating ingredient, so I thought I’d contribute to National Vegetarian Week by going through the basics of one of my favourite vegetarian staples.

There are a number of different kinds of lentils, but the chief three groups are brown, green and red, with each group containing lentils of varying colours and origins. Brown lentils range from an almost sandy colour to deep black, and cook very fast. Green lentils, particularly popular in Europe, cook in around 45 minutes, and make for lovely rich stews. Both retain their shape well when cooked. Red lentils range from a golden colour to fully red, and tend to lose their shape somewhat when cooked, which makes for wonderfully thick and mushy dishes (essential for Indian dhals).

Whether it’s in soups or stews or curries, incorporating lentils into a vegetarian diet is very advisable, so to open up the floor to the lentil world I’m going to pass over a basic recipe for Indian tarka dhal – probably one of my most well-loved meat-free dishes.

Basic tarka dhal recipe

tarka dhal recipe lentils

Absolutely essential ingredients

  • 400g red lentils
  • 2 tsps turmeric
  • knobs unsalted butter
  • 2 tsps cumin seeds
  • 1 small onion, finely chopped
  • 2-3 cloves garlic, finely sliced
  • 1-2 fresh green chillies, finely sliced (remove seeds if you want to keep the heat down)

Optional (recommended) extras

  • 1 tsp garam masala
  • 1 tsp ground coriander
  • thumb-sized piece of fresh ginger, finely grated
  • 2-3 tomatoes, chopped small

Place the lentils in a pan and cover with enough cold water to come to around two inches above their surface. Bring to the boil (skim off any scum that rises to the top), and reduce to a simmer. Stir in the turmeric and a generous knob of butter. Cover and leave to cook gently.

In a small frying pan, dry-fry the cumin seeds over a medium heat until toasted and fragrant (no more than a couple of minutes). Remove from the pan and set to one side.

Melt a second knob of butter in the same frying pan and gently fry the chopped garlic, onion, chillies and the grated ginger and tomatoes, if you’re using them. Once the garlic is golden, mix in the toasted cumin seeds and, if using, the garam masala and ground coriander. Remove from the heat until the lentils are completely softened.

Give the lentils a good stir. They should have the consistency of porridge – thicker than soup and looser than houmous. Add more water as necessary (you will be surprised how thick they can get over just a couple of extra minutes cooking), and mix in your aromatic fried mixture.

Season to taste, then serve on its own, topped with coriander, or with a side of basmati rice and greens.

So simple, so quick, so sustaining; heaven!


dhal, Lentils

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  • aneesa

    how many does this serve

    • Merlin Jobst

      Roughly 4-6, I should say – depends on what it’s served with!

  • Shelley Hogan

    red onions in ingredients but no direction as to when to add it?

    • Merlin Jobst

      Oops, thanks – have amended the instructions.

      • Shelley Hogan

        Wonderful! Thanks.

  • S.Parsons

    A tasty looking dish, and a real nod toward traditional Mexican cuisine!

    • Jon Juventud White

      It’s Indian? Lol

  • Heather Joy

    Can it be frozen?

    • jamieoliverdotcom


  • Anne Hubbard

    I’ve been a vegetarian since I was 2 years old (I am now 63). My mother took me into a local butchers shop and I REMEMBER being soooo scared of the sides of beef hanging up in the shop to ‘age’ (this was 1953). Simultaneously my mum asked for half a pound of minced beef. Somehow my infantile brain associated the fear and the mince (which, up until then, I loved) and I flatly refused to touch meat thereafter. Anyhow….all you carnivores…veg etc has never done me any harm; I just eat plenty of dairy protein. This recipe is fab…packed with protein, as are many Eastern veggie dishes.

    • Urthona26

      Being a vegetarian from the age of two is amazing. Good on you!

  • Alison McHugh

    Hi there, is it possible to substitute the butter with something like coconut oil… my husband hates butter but loves dahl…?

    • Alex Turner

      It works well with coconut oil.

  • CCleisR

    Do you have a recipe for brown lentils slow cooked in milk? we had it in Jaipur and it was heavenly.

  • Anna

    This worked brilliantly and tasted lovely. Maybe just me but I’d pretty much double the aromatics next time – flavour was great but a little too subtle for so many lentils.

  • Cat

    Red lentils meaning split red lentils, right?

  • Urthona26

    It would be helpful if this recipe stated how long we can expect each step to take. That would help me to know if I’m on the right track. The instructions are a bit vague for a beginner!

    • Urthona26

      Also, I only want to cook for myself. I take it this would reduce the amount of time needed to cook it?

  • Gerrie Morton-Alexander

    If all the ingredient value/weights are measured, why is water not? Made this and it tasted lovely but was total slop as too much water, so my judgement on ‘two inches of water’ was ill judged but you won’t find that out till the end. V annoying.