Image of tarka dhal

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.

Image of cooked tarka dhal recipe

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

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


  • Charlie Robertson

    So many people are put off becoming vegetarian because hypocritical meat eaters say things like that to them. It annoys me even more when Vegans jump all over them. Give people a chance to experiment with Vegetarian before becoming all high and mighty with them.

  • Angela Wright

    Just made this and love it! Common sense prevails where water is concerned, simple take lid of and let excess water evaporate. Great to use leftovers as lunches for work.

  • Paulo Da Silva

    It’s just delicious…. very easy recipe to prepare.
    Thank you very much.. It was a successful diner party.
    Brazilians are not used to spicy food like this and they just loved it…
    Thank you very much.

  • VegEater

    You honestly see Sabrina’s comments as “jumping all over” Monica? She did not criticize; she made a reasonable suggestion.

  • Pete

    You meant meat 4 days a month rigt? Not 4 days a week lol

  • Paul McConnell

    You’re congratulating her for developing a self-confessed irrational aversion to meat?

  • sottwell

    The recipe I used called for four cups of water to one cup of lentils and 1/4 cup rice. I use 1/4 cup olive oil.

  • Alison Whiting

    Have made this twice and it came out lovely both times. You do need to salt it to get the best from the aromatics, but have a light hand – can always add but not remove!

  • Paul Mumford

    Giggling at the term spent heifers don’t they just become school dinner ladies

  • Paul Mumford

    Is tarka like a tika only Otter !!

  • Paul Mumford

    Exactlly Well said Charles poor cow gotta eat !!!!

  • Paul Mumford

    Try lowering the Gas !!!! only a thought

  • Paul Mumford

    Try Margerine I usually use a nice bit of Lard but hey ho each to their own !!!

  • Yolanda Meira Lettieri

    Instead of butter, will coconut oil work if you want to make it vegan?

  • adkroot

    This is a great recipe, but I’m thinking Jamie was referring to sautéing the onions, ginger, chilies, and garlic separately when he instructs to throw in the other ingredients when the garlic is golden. You won’t get your garlic to a golden color with the moisture of the tomatoes in there.

  • Etak

    Ridiculous. Dairy and veal are the same industry?!? If you think like that then so is the vegan industry because more of this world is getting ravaged everyday for growing crops, taking away natural habitats of many creatures. Look how many places have severe droughts but the whole country has a water irrigation system to supply the carnivores vegetarians and vegans. Only way you’re not part of the problem is grow your own or but everything local.

  • Etak

    Irrational? Ahaha

  • Etak

    Meat entering your digestive system is NEVER a good thing

  • Etak

    Just leave it longer cooking and turn it up (on the hob) and keep stirring to release steam/water until it’s the right consistency for you.

  • Etak

    Dahl is not the same consistency as mash at all. Perhaps you make wetter porridge and wet lumpy mash?

  • Etak

    If you get all of your dairy from a good well known local farm that actually cares for animals then you don’t need to be vegan.

  • infamouscrimes

    50% of the world’s crops are feed to the doomed animals that you eat. So meat and dairy consumers are doing more environmental damage than vegans by a wide margin. Just look at how much water it takes to produce a pound of beef vs a pound of tofu. What do you think happens to male calves born from pregnant dairy cows? They’re allowed to live out their lives in peace? No, they are shoved in cages where they can barely move for the rest of their short lives and then they are slaughtered for veal. Did you not know where veal comes from?