Dhal Tadka.
Dhal Tadka.
Image: Dion Govender

When compared to Western dining, one of the hallmarks of Indian cuisine and other Middle-Eastern cuisines is that the main dish is not always the star of the show. The lines between the starter and main course are often blurred.

Regularly, multiple dishes are served at once with a focus on balance, according to Ayurvedic tradition, rather than a rigid progression of starter, main and dessert. Side dishes take on a whole new delicious meaning. Purely semantics, but even the term “side dish” seeks to minimise its importance, sounding more like a kind of illicit escapade rather than an integral part of the entire experience.

When done well, side dishes are like a well-oiled orchestra, with each section supporting the other rather than competing for attention. It’s this symphony of flavours and textures that come together in a crescendo of degustation. 

Take the thali, for example, the Hindi word for “plate”, where a variety of little portions of curries, chutneys and pickles are served with rice, roti and a papadum — a deep-fried crisp wafer-like snack — are appetisingly presented on a cleaned banana leaf. The meal is brought to a sweet conclusion with kheer, a decadent rice pudding; or payasam, an equally sweet dessert, which is the food equivalent of a warm hug, made from vermicelli noodles and warm spices such as cinnamon and cardamon, depending on regional variations. Interestingly, the thali is presentative of six specific flavours — spicy, salty, bitter, sour, astringent and sweet rounding off the bhojanam or “full meal”.

One such side dish that is also perfectly able to stand on its own is dhal (dholl if you’re from Durban). Made from lentils, an edible dried legume, cousin to beans and chickpeas, it is available in multiple sizes and colours, each with a distinct flavour and texture when cooked.

The recipe below is for a simple yet flavour-packed yellow lentil dish that can be found on most home menus at least a couple of times a month. The saucy (never soupy) consistency works well with rice or roti, and its flavour profile makes it a perfect companion to an arsenal of other dishes. The use of ghee adds richness and elegance to the dhal. In addition to being high in protein and fibre, if you substitute ghee for vegetable oil, it is also vegan.

The dhal is combined with a tadka, injecting a punch of flavour and a lovely colour. Tadka, loosely translated from Hindi, is a technique used in Indian cooking “to temper” or “bloom” whole spices and aromatics using a fat. Try the recipe below, and you will never look at a side dish the same again.

Dhal Tadka

  • Serves 6
  • 1 cup yellow split lentils
  • 1 tsp turmeric powder
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 litre water
Famous Thali of Rajasthan.
Famous Thali of Rajasthan.
Image: Srijon lahiri, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Tadka

  • 1 onion sliced
  • 1 tomato roughly chopped
  • 1 tsp cumin seeds
  • 1 tsp black mustard seeds
  • 1 tsp ground ginger and garlic paste
  • 10/15 fresh curry leaves
  • 4 dried red chillies
  • 1 tsp Kashmiri chilli powder 
  • ½ tsp coriander powder
  • 2 TBSP ghee or oil
  • ¼ tsp asafoetida (optional)
  • 1 tsp dried fenugreek leaves (optional)
  • ½ a bunch of freshly chopped coriander

Method

  • Wash the lentils in cold water in a large bowl, discarding the water. Add a further two cups of cold water and set aside to soak for 30 mins.
  • Add the soaked lentil, turmeric, salt and one litre of water to a pressure cooker and cook following your pressure cooker’s instructions. This usually takes about 10-15 minutes. Lentils can also be cooked on the stove for approximately 30 mins or until very soft. You can use a whisk to break down the soft lentil further, but we don’t want it completely smooth.
  • Set aside

Preparing the tadka

  • In a small pan, add two tablespoons of ghee and heat to shimmer. You will need to work reasonably fast here, so make sure all your ingredients are prepared and at hand.
  • Next, add the cumin seed and mustard seeds to the hot ghee. They will start to balloon and pop and become very aromatic. This is your cue to add the following ingredients
  • Throw in the curry leaves, onion, red dried chillies. Fry until the onions are translucent, and then add the garlic and ginger paste.
  • Turn the heat down to low and add the Kashmiri chilli powder, coriander powder and asafoetida. Stir all the spices together to combine.
  • Add the tomatoes, fenugreek leaves and a dash of water to help the tomatoes cook.
  • We want the tomatoes just soft, which should take about five minutes.

The best part is combining the sunshine yellow lentils and the deep red tadka. Over low heat in a medium-size pot, combine the cooked yellow lentils and half of the spicy tadka, reserving the other half for serving. Simmer for five minutes to allow all the flavours to mingle. Check for seasoning and add a dash of water if you feel the consistency is a bit thick. Stir in a handful of freshly chopped coriander and spoon the reserved tadka over the dhal.

Serve over steaming fragrant basmati rice or some freshly made roti. You’re a real one if you pull out the mango pickle.

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