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. 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 invincible, as teenagers tend to do).

I buckled at last at 18, when confronted with lamb cooked over an open fire, 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 very traditional grandmother would delightedly chuckle.

I have never opted back into full-on vegetarianism. However, 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 – a handful of times a month – I enjoy every bite. For the most part, however, my diet is pretty much 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 high in fibre, full of good protein, low in calories, basically fat free, quick and easy to cook, ludicrously cheap, substantial, versatile and 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 good.


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

    • 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!

    • Erika Czerniejewski

      eating dairy still supports meat…what happens to the male calves and the spent heifers?

      its fine though, meat in moderation is a good thing.

    • Sam

      Good for you. We do an 80/20 diet. 80% veg and 20% meat. So in a month we do meat or fish 4 days a week and the rest of the month we enjoy some excellent vegetarian food cooked in MEC pure clay pots (online), we cook meat in them too. All foods cooked in these pots turn out fantastic and very healthy, these are unglazed pots made from all-natural clay without any contaminants.

    • Drew Frost

      No one cares

  • 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.

    • lorkoos

      I agree. Otherwise very good — I used a cup of coconut milk as part of the water, which gives is a little more richness.

  • 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?

      • Jill Kaige


  • 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.

    • Suzanne Spuds Kirk

      I would have thought you drained the lentils before adding.

    • chompsky

      I agree. Two inches above the lentils is way to much water!

    • AshleyAugust

      In the recipe it calls for a “pan” but I made mine in a “pot” which is bigger in my mind so I just put in less water because I knew it would be too much, maybe that is a reason why? I also think he incorrectly describes the consistency, I’ve never made Dahl but I’ve eaten it and it’s consistency can easily be described as mashed potatoes, not porridge.

    • Robin Chesser

      Exactly! I made it today…watery slop!

  • Guest

    Mate, you dropped parsley out of the pan! Tidy up for the photo next time wil ya!!

    • Dawn Pinder

      It’s coriander!

  • Jessica

    When do you add the onion, garlic, etc. mix to the lentils? It’s a good recipe for amounts of things, but not the best set of instructions

  • infamouscrimes

    Nice how the author never mentions ethics, which is the only reason to be vegan. Vegetarians are closer to meat eaters than vegans, so he never was eating a kind diet in the first place. I don’t know why he had to go on and on about why he’s a bad person. I was just looking for a vegan recipe. I don’t use butter (hello dairy and veal and the same industry) or any oil for that matter. Tastes a bit different but still great.

  • Tamara Askham

    I have just made this and it is a bit bland. I have never cooked indian food so have no idea what to put in to give it a bit more warmth and flavour. I went out and bought all the ingredients except the cumin seeds and I wonder if they had lost some of their flavour. It certainly does not taste as I thought it would but is not unpleasant. Just not the Dahl I want to scrape out with a chapatti! All ideas welcome. Thanks

    • AshleyAugust

      I think the cumin seeds are important, they’re not hard to find, most places have them and they’re very common in Mexican cooking so sometimes they’ll be in the Mexican food isle, I’ve even found some in an Asian grocery store. They really give it that umph. Whole spices retain flavor longer than buying ground and you need to toast cumin like the author says or it will be chewy (seeds). Maybe you could ground the cumin after toasting it too. I made this recipe, not following it too strictly just dashed in the ingredients maybe a little heavily and I thought it was a little bland when mixed with rice but perfect when by itself.

    • AshleyAugust

      Nvm I thought at first you didn’t buy cumin at all. Home made food does taste different than restaurant but maybe you could try making your own garam masala? I’ve done it before and it’s tastier although for just something to eat, store bought is fine. If you can handle in depth reading and want to improve your Indian cuisine, Classic Indian Cooking by Julie Sanhi will take your cooking up a level. I made a lamb curry out of the book and it took me 8 hours and people told me it tasted like food they had in the Middle East! But it has great techniques avd what not for faster cooking too.

  • Lisette Charlotte Muratore

    Doubled the aromatics as suggested by someone below, and it came out tasting delicious! I agree that the instructions for the water level was a bit vague, as I’ve never made a dhal before I wasn’t quite sure if I was getting the consistency right. Happy with this as my first go and there’s enough in the fridge to feed an army :)

  • Monica Leal

    Thanks for the recipe. I hope that you’ll revisit vegetarianism but this time do it right. It really is easy; just eat a variety of healthy foods. It’s almost impossible to be protein-deficient as long as you eat enough calories. But the most common mistake people make is not eating enough calories! or eating junk food! I’ve been veg for 34 years and my 27-yo son has never had a bite of meat in his life, and is gorgeous and healthy.

    • Sabrina Hall

      Hi Monica, Great on being Vegetarian but can I ask you why you are not going Vegan? If you were veggie for the welfare of animals, then maybe have a look at how dairy is made. Thanks

  • Jessica Kane

    I made it. We love it!! I was a little apprehensive because of all the comments. I absolutely love dhal, and if it wasn’t nice I would have been very sad. I was heavy handed with the spices, and used a red Chili instead of a green one, because that’s what I had, and it turned out beautiful, fragrant and full of flavor. Thank you!!

  • Lisa

    i made this for friends, 1 is vegetarian, 1 gluten free and 1 lactose intolerant so i substituted coconut milk for butter and it was a huge hit. 2 of the guests are Indian and said it is one of the best Dhals they have ever had. And yes I included ALL of the optional ingredients.. because… how can you not? 😉

  • Izzy Barber

    I agree with some other comments that the spices etc in the tarka need to be doubled…my lentils were really tasteless to begin with and I had to add a lot more onion, garlic, chilli and cumin for it to be remotely flavoursome

  • Alice K.

    As a broke college student, I feel compelled to ask a few questions:
    how many portions does the recipe make?
    Can it be stored or frozen safely?
    It looks amazing and budget-friendly, so I’ll definitely try it someday.
    Thanks in advance!

  • Eva

    I’m wondering if the recipe ought to mention salt – I thought the listed ingredients ought to bring the dish to a near complete state, but it seemed to be missing a lot of salt. No biggie, I’m just used to “season to taste” meaning a small adjustment.
    PS: Next time I will probably double the amount of spice.

  • Gemma Louise Irwin

    Hi, does anyone know how many portions this should serve and the calorie per serving?