A few days ago, I found myself standing in the kitchen – a bag of red lentils in one hand and a can of tomatoes in the other. As I watched the rain pelting down against window and a few hearty folks, heads down, steadily peddling their bikes down the road, I vowed that I was making dinner out of exactly what I had in hand – lentils and tomatoes. And as I watched a few more bikes and bins succumb to the wind, I decided that whatever I was making had better transport me to a warmer emotional climate. Thankfully, when I took a quick scan of my spice rack, the answer came through (unlike the sun) – red lentil masala dal.
Looking at my split red lentils, I knew I was headed down the dal path – anything with split pulses. But just like the weather, I need a change. That’s when I started thinking about masala.
From what I understand about Indian cooking (it’s an evolving space), masala is a term that implies a wet paste of spices. Although it is not uniquely Indian, the massaman curry paste I made not too long ago is kind of like that. Lots (and lots) of spices along with some ‘wet’ stuff like garlic and ginger. You often see a method in Indian cooking where you first saute onions and garlic and then add them to a grinder or mortar and pestle, add a bunch of different spices and make a paste.
Over time, the term masala evolved and now it’s common to call blends of dry powdered spices masala. has become a common term for dry powdered spices. If we rely on Merriam-Webster – masala is a ‘varying blend of spiced used in Indian cooking’ ( ) If you take a look in your spice cabinet, you may also find Garam Masala. That’s just a special blend of spices, frequently used in Indian dishes. And all those jars of curry powder? Just special blends unique to their names and brands.
Now, I’m not knocking the convenience of spice blends. Nope, not me. I’m always stocked with a few ‘staple’ spice blends. But our cooking shouldn’t exclusively rely on blends created to an individual’s (or manufacturer’s) recipe. Not when we can create our own spice stories.
The spice question is always hanging around my kitchen. I’m always trying to make food taste unique because boring food is like boring weather. It can make you lose your mind (or your healthful eating aspirations). Even back in the sunny days (not so long ago), I spent quite a bit of time experimenting with cauliflower curry. It took me a few tries before I realized that if I added just a bit of anise to the rest of the spices, I would get something unusual. Now, whenever I think of cauliflower curry, I recall the interesting spices that made it so darned good.
In the classic cookbook, An invitation to Indian Cooking (1973), the author Madhur Jaffrey sums it up:
Cooking again and again with the same blend of spices would make all dishes taste alike. It would be the same as taking a tablespoon each of dried thyme, basil, rosemary, tarragon, bay leaves, and allspice, putting them in a jar, shaking the jar, labeling it ‘French spices’ and then using a portion of this mixture for every French dish one made, from soup to salad.
Throw open the spice cabinet and let’s cook!
After the fatigue of holding that bag of lentils and can of tomatoes and with little inspiration looking out at the blowing trees and no horizontal wind, I retreated to one of my happy places – the spice cabinet. That’s where you’ll find all the inspiration you need to create a warm, spicy masala.
For this particular blend, I used a combination of 8 dry spices:
- Cumin seeds
- Paprika (I used smoked)
- Black pepper
Once you gather all those spices, we’ll dress up our lentils and tomatoes with red onion, garlic and I went for Sriracha for the chili spice. You can use whatever hot sauce you might have on hand but adjust accordingly. You probably wouldn’t for example, want to add 2 tablespoons of Tabasco. Nor would something with a chipotle flavor work very well. You can always opt for dried red chili flakes, starting with a teaspoon and adjusting the amount if you want it spicier.
Substantive and spicy masala warmth
The color of red lentil masala, deep reddish orange, is my signal that there is something satisfying, comforting and bright on the on the menu. What makes this recipe better is the depth of flavor that the spices, with the hint of sriracha heat brings to every mouthful.
I’d been standing in the kitchen a mere 30 minutes before I set the red lentil masala on the table. Previously feeling restless and gloomy, wishing for some sign of sun, I only needed to look at the pot and get a whiff of the warm, inviting concoction and my horizon tilted a bit.
And even though I use a lot of red lentils and make a lot of curries, there was something unique about this one. We can’t change the weather. Believe me, I would if I could. But we do have full control to capture some rays or just break the mundane when we charge beyond those convenient blends and brave our own signatures. Peace.Print
Cheerful and fragrant red lentil masala dal is healthy and plant-based, full of aromatic spices and the perfect Indian flavors for sunshine in a bowl.
- 1 Tbsp. cumin seeds
- ½ cup diced red onion (more for garnish if desired)
- 6 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
- 2 tsp. ground coriander
- ½ tsp. ground cardamom
- ½ tsp. ground cinnamon
- 1/2 tsp. ground fenugreek
- 1 tsp. smoked or regular paprika
- ¼ tsp. nutmeg
- ¼ tsp. black pepper
- 2 Tbsp. Sriracha or other hot sauce
- 1 – 15 oz. (400 gm.) can cherry or diced tomatoes
- 4 cups vegetable broth
- 2 cups split red lentils, rinsed and drained
- Heat a medium soup pot to medium and add 1 Tbsp. cumin seeds. Toast the seeds for about 1 – 2 minutes until they start to become fragrant. Be sure to stir constantly so they don’t burn.
- Add the red onion. Saute until the onions start to break down (about 5 minutes).
- Stir in the garlic for another 30 seconds.
- Next mix in the 2 tsp. ground coriander, ½ tsp. ground cardamom, ½ tsp. ground cinnamon, 1/2 tsp. ground fenugreek, 1 tsp. smoked or regular paprika, ¼ tsp. nutmeg and ¼ tsp. black pepper.
- Add the 2 Tbsp. Sriracha or other hot sauce and the tomatoes. Use a wooden spoon to break up the tomatoes if necessary.
- Add the vegetable broth and stir everything. Be sure the pot is simmering.
- Add the red lentils, mix well so they don’t all clump together.
- Cover the pot and cook for 15 minutes or until the lentils are tender and your dal is thick and creamy.
- Serve with rice and garnish with chopped cilantro or sliced scallions.
- If you use whole, rather than split red lentils, it will take about twice as long for them to get tender. Be sure to check the pot a few times and add more broth or water if necessary.
- Nutritional information does not include the rice.
- Category: Main Courses
- Cuisine: Indian
Keywords: red lentil masala dal