The Best South Indian Dahl

This month, we’re asking food bloggers to share one-dish meals, like skillet lasagna. Today, Leela of Tea Cup Tea is sharing a vegetarian Indian stew that you can whip up in 20 minutes with creamy coconut milk and toasted cashews. Delicious! Here’s how to make it…

South Indian Dahl
By Leela Cyd of Tea Cup Tea

“Dahl” is a ubiquitous catch-all phrase for most any stew in India made from pulses. Every cook in India prepares her dahl with a slight variation mostly according to region, tradition and availability. From the addition of tamarind paste in Kerala to a splash of cream in the Punjab region in the North, I delighted in this nourishing dish almost every day while living in India a few years ago. It’s so comforting and always hits the spot, especially on cold days.

Once you gather all the spices and pantry staples, this version of dahl is easy to whip up in about 20 minutes. I love it because it’s incredibly flavorful and satisfying, and absolutely easy. When accompanied with some rice or a little flat bread and some garnishes such as fresh cilantro, toasted cashews or mango chutney, you’ve got an inexpensive, vegetarian main dish everyone will go gaga for. It’s a showstopper! My secret weapon, which an innkeeper in Panaji, Goa, showed me with her dahl, is to enrich the whole thing with coconut milk. This subtly creamy, decadent touch makes the dish beyond delicious.

Recipe: South Indian Dahl
Serves 4 as a main dish

You’ll need:
3 tbsp. ghee (or vegetable oil and you’ll keep the whole thing vegan)
2 small red onions or 1 large one, roughly chopped
1 tbsp. mustard seeds
1 tsp. cumin seeds
1/2 tsp. turmeric
1/4 tsp. chili powder
Pinch of ground cardamon
3 dried red chilies, chopped into 1/4″ pieces
1 tsp. salt
A few dashes of pepper
8 cloves garlic, minced
1-inch nub ginger, minced
1 1/2 cups masoor dahl (orange lentils)
4 medium sized tomatoes, roughly chopped
3 cups water
1 1/2 cups coconut milk
Juice from 1 lime
For garnish: Lime, cilantro, toasted cashews

What to do:
Heat ghee on medium heat and add spices and onion, stirring continuously for about five minutes. Add garlic and ginger and cook for another one or two minutes. Then, add lentils, tomatoes and liquids. Crank up the heat to medium-high and stir continuously, until all liquid is absorbed, about 15 to 20 minutes. Serve hot with rice, naan or a crusty roll. Garnish with toasted cashews and cilantro. (I love extra lime wedges for squeezing on top, as well as extra salt and pepper.)

Thank you so much, Leela!

P.S. More best recipes, including four-ingredient fudge and chai tea.

(Photos and recipe by Leela Cyd of Tea Cup Tea. Thanks to Shoko for helping with this series.)

  1. toor dahl is yellow lentils, like split peas.

  2. Hi, we just made this (we live in London) and it is delicious! Tried to make gluten free chapati to go with it (not such a success, but still nice. Joanna, I love your blog so much, especially for your truthfulness and hope you will always post. Anna xxx

  3. I was kind of excited to see how few spices are needed for this recipe. The only thing I don’t already have in my cupboard is the orange lentils (I have black, green, brown and yellow). I’m always looking for good bean and lentil dishes because I noticed that after I started eating meat again, it’s so easy to center every meal around it and I’ve stopped cooking without it. For people that don’t have extensive spice collections, look for shops that sell bulk spices (many mainstream groceries do this now but they might be in the “organic” or healthy section of the store). Bulk spices are usually cheaper by the ounce, and you can purchase small amounts if you don’t use them regularly.

  4. Nom nom nom I must try this! Thanks for sharing!

  5. Okay, so I just went ahead and made this to eat for supper tonight, with the thought that it might be good to let it sit for awhile and allow the flavors to mingle. Plus, I was really itching to get started.

    (To above poster – no there is no need to soak the lentils. They cook fully from dry in 20 minutes.)

    This is delicious(!) but it did take more like an hour to make, between all the chopping, mincing, and measuring, and the various cooking steps. Oh, well I did make the ghee myself which added a few minutes to the cooking time. A couple notes – it came out CRAZY hot and I’m really not a wimp when it comes to spicy foods. I think I might have used the wrong dried chilies – didn’t pay attention to the photo and the recipe doesn’t say which kind of pepper to use, so I got the only one at my store which was a “product of India.” It also says it’s the world’s hottest pepper… so I used fewer than called for and it’s still extremely hot. I also used “lite” coconut milk, and I think that was a mistake and may contribute to the heat. It’s essentially coconuts thinned twice, because rather than being coconut and water as is regular coconut milk, it’s coconut milk and water and guar gum…. So my plan is to pick up a can of regular coconut milk and when I reheat this later, add a small amount to the pan to help mellow the heat. I also think that as this sits throughout the day the lentils (and small amount of finely diced potato I added) will mellow the flavor.

    I plan to serve over Trader Joe’s jasmine rice… it comes par-cooked frozen, microwaves in three minutes, and is surprisingly delicious, with a great texture.

  6. This looks delicious and Í am making it for supper tonight. I often intend to make recipes I find on blogs and then never get around to it, but yesterday I actually went out and purchased all necessary ingredients, so I will definitely be making it! I assumed I’d be running around town, at the very least going to our food co-op to try to find the the lentils, dried chilies and some of the spices (no international grocery nearby in small-town New England) but I was surprised to find them all at the regular chain supermarket. The orange lentils were only available in a bag which included curry packet – it was really a “kit” for a lentil curry – but no matter, I can just keep the seasoning packet for something else. I did have to lay in about $35 worth of spices I didn’t already own, but they’ll last for a long time. The only thing different I plan to do is add one small potato, finely diced.

  7. Looks tasty. Do you need to soak the lentils overnight?

  8. I love this recipe. I’m so lucky to live in Durban, South Africa (which has a large Indian population) so we can get every imaginable spice at wonderfully low prices. AND I’m a veg so this is definitely going on my weekly meal list. Thank you Leela :)

  9. It looks delicious. I’ve been wanting to make a yummy Indian food recipe with lentils.

  10. This is SO great! My husband is Indian, and this might finally be a recipe I can impress him with (not to mention my MiL – that would be something!). Thank you!

  11. Beautifully styled food post – Indian food is definitely one of my favorite things! YUM.

    <3 Daryl


  12. Hi Joanna,
    My name is Ana Ribeiro, I am a brazilian food blogger and would love to send you a recipe! Please let me know if you would be interested. Here is the link to my blog: and my email address is:
    I blog in portuguese, which is my maternal language, but I am actually planning on making an english version of it! Hope to hear from you soon! xoxo Ana

  13. this looks fabulous! good timing, one of our goals this year is to learn to cook more indian food (last year we learned to cook more asian food, so fun!).

    since you’re doing one-skillet recipes, i would LOVE to see a good paella :)

  14. I think Pooja is right- that is masoor daal

  15. Love the flavors you have bursting here! Dahl is one of my absolute favorite dishes. Homemade is the best way, and my mom’s is my #1. It’s so tasty pairing it with rice or even naan!

  16. I am obsessed with Indian food and cook it once a week. I am vegetarian so I am so happy that the recipe is. It looks amazing and will definitely try it for one of next week’s dinner. Thanks!!

  17. Ohhhhhhh, I cannot stop looking at the second picture in this post!! Can I purchase it as a print?

  18. Oh my gosh, this looks so yummy! I have been obsessed with my Madhur Jaffrey Indian cookbook recently and just discovered an amazing spice market not too far from my house. Definitely trying this!

  19. i love indian food! this looks absolutely delicious.

  20. a lot of homes don’t have all those spices on hand, but thanks to jersey city’s own “little india” on Newark Ave in journal square, we have everything but the mustard seeds!! the grocery stores in indian neighborhoods have insanely cheap spices!! thanks for sharing! we are meat-eaters, but we’re constantly looking for more flavorful vegetarian dishes… like this!

  21. This sounds delicious! I love Indian food (especially nut-based dishes!), but have always been a little intimidated to try cooking them myself. But if all it takes is 20 minutes, I’m gonna have to give this one a go! Thanks for making it look so easy! :)

  22. That’s masoor dhal, not toor dhal.

  23. Oh wow – this looks amazing. I’ve always been a little intimidated to try making a dish like this from scratch, but this recipe isn’t so scary.

  24. so glad you like it, malaika!! my sister’s husband’s family is from india and they make the most amazing dosas. i should get the recipe from her mother-in-law!

  25. So glad you featured an Indian recipe! I’ve loved following your recipe series but it’s SO GREAT to have a recipe that will please my Indian-food-only family.
    Glad you’re posting again, Joanna!

  26. Looks yummy!