Simply put, Tarka is the technique used when adding raw spices to very hot oil. The spice seeds will pop and sizzle, releasing their pungent aromatics into the oil. Usually, the hot spicy oil is added to the dish at the end of the cooking time or just before serving. Occasionally, tempering the spices at the start of a dish is also acceptable, layering the flavours up as you continue.
This is my take on a quick red lentil dahl, which is great if you don’t have the time or patience for an overnight lentil pre-soak. Some lentils require an extensive soaking time to soften, but for this creamy, simple dahl, red lentils are perfect. Feel free to use a combination of different coloured and textured dahl, but remember to lengthen the cooking time according to the dahl you’ve chosen.
A spicy bowl of this Tarka dahl is warming and very satisfying but, if you feel it needs something more, I’ve included roasted cauliflower steaks, the current favourite pick of the vegetable patch. Serve with warm naan bread or poppadoms and a pomegranate raita. We now have a first-rate Indian feast happening. I love Meat-free Mondays!
Tarka Dahl with roasted cauliflower and poppadoms
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
2 tablespoons butter
1 large brown onion, finely diced
1 garlic clove, minced
1 1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
2 1/2 teaspoons ground coriander
1 1/2 teaspoons turmeric
1/2 teaspoon dried red chilli flakes, more if you like some heat!
240g red lentils, rinsed and drained
400g tinned tomatoes, mulched
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 teaspoon sugar
800 ml weak vegetable stock
salt and pepper, to taste
a spritz of fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large cauliflower
salt and freshly ground black pepper
Heat the oil and butter in a saucepan. Toast the cumin seeds for a minute or two until popping and fragrant. Add the onion and sauté for about 6 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for a further 2 minutes. Stir in the coriander, turmeric and chilli flakes. Dry toast for a just a minute to intensify the flavours, but be careful not to scorch or burn them. Add the lentils, tomatoes, tomato paste, sugar and vegetable stock. Season lightly with salt and pepper. Place the lid on and simmer for around 40 minutes or until the liquid has been absorbed by the lentils.
Stir the dahl several times during the cooking time to prevent the lentils from sticking to the base of the pan. Check the seasoning and adjust if necessary. Add a squeeze of fresh lemon or lime juice to clarify and lift the flavour.
While the dahl is cooking, preheat the oven to 200º C. Line a baking tray with parchment paper. Cut the cauliflower into 1.5cm thick steaks. Lay on the tray and drizzle with olive oil. Season with salt and pepper and roast for 15-18 minutes until tender, but not completely soft. You still want the cauliflower to have a little bite to it.
Serve the dahl with warm flatbreads or poppadoms, fresh tomato salad and roast cauliflower. I like to add a tangy, sweet chutney and cooling raita or plain, thick yoghurt on the side.