How to make an authentic South Indian dhal, my ultimate comfort food

How to make an authentic South Indian dhal, my ultimate comfort food

What is your go-to comfort food? Food that warms the cockles of your heart, food that fills you, satisfies you and soothes you in equal measure. Do you make a bowl of hot creamy, soft, steaming mash with lashings of butter and cheese? Is it simply a baked potato with a tin of beans? Perhaps it is a big bowl of pasta? Or is it fried chicken – so bad, yet tastes so very good? For me, it’s making a bowl of authentic South Indian dhal.

If I head back to my mum’s, this is what I want to be fed. This is the food equivalent of a hug, snuggling down on the sofa, wrapped in a blanket watching telly. For me, there is nothing more perfect than a serving or two of my mother’s recipe for authentic South Indian dhal.

South Indian dhal and the tempering technique

There are so many recipes for dhal, and I don’t really think there is any right or wrong way to make dhal. But this recipe for South Indian dhal is the way I make it.

I use the tempering technique. I fry the onions, garlic, ginger along with whole spices, Maldive fish and chilli in a bit of oil before I add it to the dish which brings out the flavour of these ingredients.

And the great thing about dhal, it’s easy to make, it’s nutritious, healthy and so very, very tasty!

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How to make an authentic South Indian dhal, my ultimate comfort food

  • Author: Tooting Mama
  • Cook Time: 40 - 45 minutes
  • Total Time: 5 minute
  • Yield: serves 4 as a main dish, 6 as a side dish 1x
  • Category: Main Dish, Side dish
  • Cuisine: Sri Lankan


  • 300 grams red lentils (washed)
  • 600 mls water (up to a litre)
  • 1/4 tsp ground turmeric
  • 1 cloves of garlic, whole (peeled)
  • 1 fresh red chilli (deseeded (if you want a mild dhal))
  • a pinch of fenugreek seeds
  • 4 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 1 tsp cumin seeds
  • 1 tsp mustard seeds
  • a generous pinch of curry leaves
  • 1 yellow onion (chopped)
  • 2 tbsp Maldive fish
  • 1 dried red chilli crushed
  • 2 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1/2 fresh ginger, finely chopped
  • salt to taste


  1. Put the washed lentils into a medium-sized saucepan. Add the water. Into this drop in the peeled clove of garlic, the deseeded chilli, a pinch of fenugreek seeds and the turmeric.
  2. Bring the water to the boil. Once boiling, turn down the heat and allow the lentils to simmer.
  3. Let the lentil simmer for around thirty minutes. Occasionally skim of the foam that will develop. Give the lentil the occasional stir.
  4. The water will start to reduce, but what you are looking for is for the lentils to become mushy and creamy.
  5. You can continue to keep the lentils cooking while you temper the onions.
  6. In a small frying pan heat the oil before adding the cumin and mustard seeds.
  7. Once the seeds start popping add the onion. Lower the heat, and allow the onions to cook, let them become transparent before they start to turn brown.
  8. Then add the garlic, ginger, curry leaves and Maldive fish, and fry for around two minutes.
  9. Once the onions start to turn brown, tip the contents of the frying pan into the lentils and mix thoroughly.
  10. Finally, add the salt. Be generous, and keep tasting until the flavour starts to burst through. It’s the salt that really makes this dish!
  11. Serve with basmati rice, or as an accompaniment to your main dish.
  12. Me, I like my dhal with a hard-boiled egg, basmati rice, and a spoonful of a serving of hot lime pickle.


  • Before cooking lentils, wash them through in cold water
  • Put the lentils into a saucepan. Add cold water, and swirl the water with your hand.
  • The water will turn cloudy. Tip the water out into the sink, and start again
  • Keep washing the lentils until the water is clear
  • Maldive fish is dried tuna, a typical Sri Lankan ingredient and used to give a dish that umami quality. Therefore to make this dish truly vegetarian or vegan simply leave this out

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