Home is calling…..

My first winter alone in Aberdeen was an education. The temperature, the horizontal rain and the bone cracking wind that howled through gaps in my window made me burrow into my house, surrounded by anything and everything ‘Fleece’. I was pregnant with my daughter and desperately missing my mother, even more so than TheScotsman who worked away. You see…….he couldn’t cook me a curry.

At least twice a week, Mama made a simple liquid dhal, tempered with garlic and dried red chillies. Short, red grained rice, a few masala clad fried fish cutlets lay alongside a vegetable side dish to complete the meal. Oh, and papad (poppadums) and pickle. You can’t skip those. I would moan as a kid, when I saw Paruppeh Rasam (tangy dhal stew) on the table. Come on mum, really? Its only after I moved to Scotland, that I pined for it. It is the nursery food of my childhood. The rice was fat and soft, with a bran like smell, and this loose, garlic infused light curry would be absorbed by the grains, so much so that you could squish it in your fingers into a ball. A tuck of vegetable on one side, a swipe of the tart pickle and a crunchy piece of papad stuck onto this ball, made the best morsel of food there ever was. You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.

I just about started cooking properly at the time in Aberdeen, but curries were way beyond my capabilities. I knew when I was eating a good one, I knew my mother’s but I did not have the know-how to replicate it at home. As an Indian, it shamed me deeply! So I thought, one freezing cold night, huddled under two fleece blankets, that I would make a start by making Dhal. Easy right? Just vegetables and a few tempered bits….

My first attempts were watery, reeking of burnt garlic and had me crying into the bowl with annoyance and homesickness. Or rather food-sickness! Like most dishes that are simple, a good dhal relies on balance. You want the lentils to cook down to facilitate scooping with a chapatti but you want some structure too. Spices should be but a few; mild yet prevalent. Lentils are in danger of  becoming tasteless sludge, so it needs some form of tang, usually from tomatoes or lime juice and a good touch of salt. After many bin worthy attempts, things improved, it became edible, the spices were getting more balanced. I learned when to catch the garlic before it burnt in the hot fat. I could eat it without bawling. My babies were reared on it and dhal was the first proper ‘grown-up’ food they had.

So for my dhal, I tend to use red lentils, simply because they cook faster, which is a bonus when you are making pot-and-stove possessive Indian meals. Tomatoes, onions, ginger and garlic slices are boiled along with the dhal. Once it reaches a thick but still loose enough consistency, time to temper it. Which just means heating up some fat, traditionally ghee, spluttering cumin seeds, browning heaps of chopped or sliced garlic, and some dried chillies. The chillies do not impart heat, but add so much smokey flavour. I love bursting the swollen chillies into my rice. At the very end, a carpet of coriander is mixed through which infuses it with the most wonderful flavour and freshens up the long cooked lentils.

The thing about lentils are that they are open to so much interpretation. I love using split pea lentil and putting in heaps of spinach at the very end of cooking, just to wilt through. I tend to like this one thicker too. Consider putting in cumin and coriander seeds in the broth while it’s boiling. Omit the red chillies in the temper pot and replace with green chillies, slit halfway, directly into the curry after its cooked. Leave it for 5 minutes to infuse the curry. If you can get them, curry leaves are fantastic too, tempered with mustard seeds, but omit coriander. Chop and change as you choose, there really is no bad way, just don’t put it all in!

I had a cauliflower knocking about in the fridge too and made a coconut based side dish for it. Its mild and aromatic, with as much heat as you choose to give it. It is an excellent base to use with vegetables like cabbage and kale. Or all of them together!

Its a humble dish, no question. Once in a while its good to touch base with where it all started. At least I can look back now and know I’ve progressed a good, fair way; in the kitchen, as well as out of it.

<strong>My Simple Lentils</strong>

200g red lentils
1 large onion, sliced finely
3 garlic cloves, sliced
2 medium tomatoes, sliced
1 ½  inch piece of ginger, finely sliced
¼ tsp turmeric
500mls of water

For the tempering

2 teaspoons whole cumin
4 fat garlic cloves sliced
4 whole dried red chillies (or ½ tsp chilli flakes)
4 tablespoons of ghee or flavourless oil or a combination of butter and oil
Large bunch of fresh coriander, chopped
Lime juice to taste

Rinse the lentils until the water runs clear. Place into a saucepan with the water, onion, garlic, ginger, tomatoes and turmeric. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and let it gently simmer until completely cooked. Should the dhal become too thick, add boiling water as needed. Adjust seasoning and add the lime juice to taste.

Now you need to temper the dhal. Heat the fat of your choice in a small saucepan. When hot, add the cumin seeds and once it starts sizzling, add the remaining garlic and whole chilli. Cook on a highish heat until the garlic turns golden, but watch it carefully as it burns quickly. Add it all quickly into the dhal. It is customary to drop a spoonful of the now tempered dhal into the tempering pan, swill it round and add it back to the pan. It ensures you have grabbed every ounce of flavour!

Add the coriander to the dhal before serving.

Coconut Sauteed Vegetables

125 gm cauliflower or any other veg
½ small onion, chopped
4 tbsp fresh or dessicated coconut (soak in a little boiling water for 5 minutes to soften it)
½ teaspoon whole cumin (or ¼ teaspoon ground cumin)
1 chopped green chilli
¼ tsp mustard seeds
10 curry leaves
pinch of turmeric
Coconut oil, if you have it or any regular flavourless oil


Grind the coconut, cumin and chilli to a paste. It does not have to be fine. If you don’t have a spice grinder, a regular food processor will do. The cumin will not grind down, but this is no disaster. Or use the powdered cumin.

Splutter the mustard seeds in the oil in a frying pan on a medium- high heat. Then add the onion and sauté until lightly browned.

Add the cauliflower and turmeric and sauté to soften the cauliflower a little bit. Then add your coconut paste with some salt. Mix well, lower the heat and let it cook in its own steam.

Once the cauliflower is tender, add the curry leaves, toss it through the veg and take the pan off the heat. Let the curry leaves infuse its flavour for five minutes before serving.


30 thoughts on “Home is calling…..

  1. Shazza

    Oh Mrs PP you have made my day…. Darling Husband of 16 years loves Dahl in this form, I dont, think its because I had a really bad one years ago when I was first introduced to indian food, and as you say they burnt the garlic and it was bitter yuck!!! so it has put me off it since, which is a shame cause I love all things lentil….. so I am going to give this a go and see if I can please the man about our house!!

    1. thePatternedPlate

      Oh Sharon, you have surprised me there on both counts! Firstly, that your husband loves dhal and secondly that you don’t!!! I can completely understand though as a substandard dhal is just that and you can’t quite tart it up or do anything more with it. I hope you give this one a go, its very traditional Keralan food. May I suggest some fish on the side? Cover with a paste of mild chilli, touch of turmeric, some cumin, garlic and ginger, minced. This is food heaven for me! OOOOh a dry beef curry ‘fry’ is excellent too! In fact I think Dhal and beef marry well..Ok ok.will stop lecturing! LOL Lemme know how you get on…..

      1. Shazza

        Oh it was a true shocker…. bitter, watery… just did’nt see the point….so will def give this a go and perhaps you will have converted me, im more a channa dalh girl….

        1. thePatternedPlate

          Oh I lurve chana dhal too!! The first one with red lentils is more liquid than the dhals of the north which are thicker. Its because the carb staples are different. You need more liquid for the rice and need it thicker for chapatis up north. If you would prefer it thicker, simply reduce the water content..you can always add more later if you feel its becoming too thick…:-D

  2. Jobakes

    Oh Carrie! Oh! Now I must admit to not having made dhal since my dental school days having made myself sick of it but how can you not fall in love with your tender little story of where it all came from? My next admission is that I am extremely selfishly happy that thanks to your wonderful blog I now have a direct line to real Indian home cooking! And thirdly, whilst I am still not sure if I can face another dhal still, I am having to stop myself doing an online shop for heaps of cauli to make your side dish – yup, I’m a closet cauli junkie and proud if it! I have to make this soooooon! Mwah x

    1. thePatternedPlate

      Skip the dhal by all means, its not for everyone! And errm, easy on the direct Indian food line LOL..I’m plaguing my mother every week! I love cauliflower too and this is such a good way to have it. 😀

      1. jobakes

        Oh wowza! I’ve just made this dhal along with roti and pumpkin as you advised Carrie and swoon, I’m in love! It totally was a meal that makes me wonder why on earth I ever have non-Indian meals! I’m going to double the recipe so Ivan have plenty in the freezer for emergencies as I really am going to need this in my life on a regular basis! Thank you again for sharing sweet pea, absolutely love it xxx

        1. thePatternedPlate

          I am VERY happy to hear it Jo! So pleased you like it…and yes, a freezer stash is a must. Make extra rice too, cos that freezes superbly and then you have the makings of a complete meal :-))

  3. NYinRome

    Absolutely GLORIOUS, what a homage to lentils!!!!!really really really…..it all came across in one gorgeous color and perfume…..hey let you in that I have never made this before….will jot it down as to do in big red capitals in my notebook!! Girl, Moms are great aren’t they? ;D

  4. Julia Levy

    Dahl is indeed a simple pleasure in life, it turnhed me into a lover of coriander. In fact it’s a coincidence you posted this today as I’m just about to conjure up the delights that is sam’s divine brown lentil curry. I’m the only lover in this house, jo holds no friendship with lentils so i happily make it in batches to tuck away in the freezer for myself. A bowl of dahl, a soft doughy naan, heaven in a bowl, no cutlery or manners needed, scoop, shovel, drool.

  5. eat little bird

    Oh I love this post! I have an Indian friend who’s mother makes really delicious dahl, the crucial ingredient being cumin seeds. The only dahl recipe I’ve tried is Bill Granger’s recipe, which is heady with coriander and which I just love. Dahl is such a comforting meal and, like Julia, I would also happily tuck away into some dahl with some lovely naan bread on the side.

      1. eat little bird

        Hi Julia! Deal!! 😉 Though, I might need to try Carrie’s recipe too – don’t think anyone would complain about a meal with different types of dahl! Bill’s recipe is from his book, Simply Bill. Shall I email it to you? I’ve heard a lot about Sam’s recipe … I’ll let you know how I get on 🙂 P.S. Give me a week or two.

    1. thePatternedPlate

      Well MsELB, you know what a fiend I am for coriander, which is only equaled by you I think!!! The reason why cumin is an absolute MUST for Indians with anything from the lentil or brassica family is that it is believed to aid digestion and counter its, well, gaseous nature!!!! Haha! But it does work! Mum had a fit when I told her of one attempt and I forgot to put the cumin in! You’d think she was visualizing me expand and exploding!!

    2. thePatternedPlate

      Oh wanted to say, that the one I have posted, is more liquid, as its to go with rice. Should you want a thicker consistency, simply lower the water content and leave all else as is.

  6. jennifer doyle flynn

    Oh Ms Plate 😉 u are so good at this, so good im now off to town to get the necessary’s cant wait have to have it now…keep this up I love reading it!!

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  8. Big Hungry Gnomes Food Blog

    Another beautifully written post. I’ve made dhals in the past but always found they turned out very watery so I’ll definitely follow this in future. The accompaniment of coconut satueed veg also gives me a chance to use up that trouble bag of dessicated cocunut I have lurking in the cupboard

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  10. saffron

    oh we Indians thrive on dahls , don’t we? I am admiring all the little details of this post ….simple, yet how wonderfully written! Love the smell of tempering in the south Indian style of cooking dahls. The coconut sauteed vegetables looks delicious too!

  11. saffron

    Hey Carrie,
    In north India the tarka is usually a combination of all or any three of the following ingredients with ghee.
    Hing, Whole cumin , Whole mustard ,chopped garlic, bay leaf & red chili (whole) and sometimes sliced onions too. But I like to add curry leaves too in my tarka, as done in south India!!

    1. The Patterned Plate

      Hmm that’s interesting. Hing isn’t used as extensively in the South though I love the flavour it gives to food. Bay leaf is a new one on me. Depending on the dish, we use onions too, like for the Indian Penicillin Soup I have on here, with just the curry leaves. I love the round red chillies in a tarka, because they swell up and get juicy..lovely to burst and mix through the rice…

      Hungry now!

  12. AJollyGoodEgg

    Your dhal recipe looks amazing. I can’t wait to try it, dhal and other lentil dishes are such staples in our house. Healthy and delicious – perfect!

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