Quick, protein-packed, naturally low-fat, vegetarian lentil soup that is good to eat by itself as a soup, or with rice as is traditional in India.
The most difficult part about this post was giving it a name. Should I simply call it lentil soup? But, what happens when I make a different lentil soup, with ginger and nigella seeds instead of garlic and cumin? Or perhaps my father’s favourite lentil soup — with a pinch of cumin seeds sautéed in butter and a single green chilli split down the middle for a hint of heat. Or, how about a mulligatawny soup with lamb and tamarind juice? The variations on lentil soup are endless. I could make lentil soup every single day of the year and not make the same one twice if I wanted to.
Lentil soup — dal — is a staple of any Indian meal. Indians will typically eat dal every day, and with almost every meal. And this is true for almost every state in India. Butter chicken and chicken tikka masala are not a part of every Indian’s home cooking repertoire, even though that is what goes as “Indian food” in the US. We are not all eating korma or vindaloo at home every night either. Every state has its own style of cooking. Sometimes the style of cooking in one place is drastically different form the food served just a few hundred miles away. But, everyone eats dal. It is a stalwart of Indian cuisines from Kashmir to Tamil Nadu, and from Gujarat to Nagaland. Every state has their favourite versions.
This version of dal (with garlic) is not popular in the state of West Bengal, where I am from. This recipe is from a neighbouring state called Bihar. I used to have a boyfriend in college who was from there. He was no good so I ditched him (obviously), but I hung on to his mother’s recipe for dal with cumin and garlic.
This is a soup I often cook in a mad rush in the morning when I realise that I have nothing to take for lunch. Now that so many of the standby and affordable lunch options around MIT are disappearing, I have been making more of an effort to bring lunch in. One can only get Chipotle so many times. If I am cooking this to eat with rice, I make it a little thinner than if I were preparing it to serve as a standalone soup. It is always comforting, and always nourishing.
My mother would say that the garlic is unnecessary — that this soup does not need the boost. I like to cook a garlicky dal once in a while. We are both right. As Laurie Colwin wrote in her essay, Wonderful Lentil Soup, “Lentils are the Ms. Congeniality of the bean world.” It’s almost impossible to go wrong with a lentil soup.
Did I mention that lentils are one of the foods I had the most trouble getting Keith to like (or even try)? It wasn’t until we went to India for our wedding reception that he started eating them, mostly out of fear that my mother would give his ears a good twist for being fussy with food. Now, he eats lentils, but only a little bit. Unless my mother is around, in which case, he eats however much my mother puts on his plate.
Traditional Indian wisdom also says that lentils take longer to cook if you add salt at the start, so I never do. I have also never tested this point, but it's not much work to add salt after simmering the lentils instead of at the beginning, so it's all the same to me.
I have details on where to purchase red lentils in the Notes section below.
- 1 cup split red lentils
- 4 cups water
- 2 Indian/Thai chilli peppers (or ½ of 1 jalapeño pepper), split in half lengthwise (scrape the seeds out if you prefer less spice)
- ½ teaspoon turmeric
- 1½ teaspoons kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 1 tablespoon neutral oil (vegetable, canola, etc.)
- 1 dried red chilli pepper
- ¾ teaspoon cumin seeds
- 1 fat clove of garlic, sliced thin
- 1 medium tomato, chopped
- To Finish:
- 2 tablespoons finely chopped cilantro leaves
- Juice of half a lemon (2 tablespoons)
- ½ tablespoon ghee or butter (optional)
- Bring water to boil in a saucepan. While the water is heating up, put the lentils into a large colander and wash until cold water until the water runs clear. Discard pieces of debris from your lentils if you find any. Once the water is boiling, turn the heat down to between medium and medium-high, and add the lentils, turmeric, and the fresh green chilli to the pot stir to make sure the lentils are not sticking to the bottom of the pot.
- From time to time, skim off the foam that rises to the surface and then give the lentils a quick stir. Simmer until about half the lentils have disintegrated, about 20-25 minutes. Add the salt and sugar, stir and turn remove from the heat.
- Heat a skillet on medium-high heat and add the oil. When the oil is very hot and shimmering, add the dried chilli pepper and the cumin seeds. If you prefer a bit of additional kick, break the chilli pepper in half so that the seeds spill out. When the cumin is fragrant and a shade darker, but not yet completely black, add the garlic. This should take less than a minute. Fry for another 30 seconds, or until the garlic is starting to become golden. Add the chopped tomato and a small pinch of salt. Coat the tomato in the oil and fry until it turns to mush.
- Once the tomato is mushy, and looks like oil is oozing out from it, scrape all the aromatics together and dump into the pot of lentils. Give the lentils a good stir so the flavours mix through. Taste and adjust seasoning. Squeeze in the lemon juice and finish with the cilantro, leaves. Mix in the butter (if using). Serve hot, by itself, or with rice.
Once you are comfortable making this recipe, you can start frying the aromatics during the last 10 minutes of simmering the lentils so everything finishes all at once. This is how I do it now, but it doesn't make the dish better or worse -- just saves 10 minutes.
Although, I use two pots for this recipe, you can make this recipe in a single pot by frying the aromatics in oil first and then adding lentils and boiling water to the oil and simmering until the lentils are done. I prefer to make this in two pots because I can chop up the garlic, tomato, and cilantro (coriander) leaves while the lentils are simmering and not have to wait until all my ingredients are prepped.