Don't Overthink Dal

How to make a satisfactory dal in just a few steps.

As someone who grew up with Bengali cooking, I find it hard to justify paying a premium for food I used to eat for free, not to mention dishes that I frankly take for granted. Especially when the meal is something as simple as dal. Whether this stew features a base of lentils or split peas, dal is so cheap to make at home you really should try it. Yet many don't, because it can admittedly take some time to prepare, even with a time-saving gadget like my Instant Pot. (And yes, I have an Instant Pot recipe for dal that you should try.)

If you don't have that kind of time, try this even simpler, easy peasy recipe for dal, featuring a delicious shortcut: a can of lentil soup.

The time spent cooking dal is largely to get the lentils or peas tender. So by using canned lentil soup, you skip over a major hurdle to making this a convenient dish. (If you ever encounter split peas that have been sitting on the shelf too long, they can take forever! Expletives ensue.)

One might argue that doing it the old fashioned way is better. But this is fast, easy, and great way to add to an Indian feast without spending all day at the stove. A proper Indian dinner should have at least two to four simmering pots in the mix. Make life a little easier and hack your dal.

Here's the recipe, which is good enough to make you question paying for dal on your next Indian takeout run.

The Easiest Dal

  • 1 can lentil soup (preferably organic, like the kind a vegetarian kindergarten teacher in their mid-20s would buy)
  • 2 Tbsp. chopped white onion
  • 1/2 tsp. minced garlic
  • 2 Tbsp. olive oil + more to taste
  • 1-2 tsp. garam masala (depending on how old it is, or how vanilla your palate is)
  • Steps:

  1. Heat oil in a small saucepan over medium high heat.
  2. Add onions and cook for several minutes until soft and slightly golden, but don't worry about making them perfect because this is, after all, a canned soup recipe.
  3. Add garlic and cook for 1 minute, lowering the heat if needed.
  4. Add garam masala, stir, and cook for 30 seconds. (For the record, I'd dump in a full tablespoon of this stuff, but I'm Bengali.)
  5. Add the lentil soup to the saucepan.
  6. Simmer over low heat for 5 minutes, or until you feel like you have spent enough of your precious time on a canned soup recipe.
  7. Serve with rice, or betray the culture entirely and serve with cauliflower rice. I do this, and as far as I know my dead ancestors are not rolling over in their graves.
  8. Enjoy your dal knowing that you didn't have to pay more than a few bucks for a dish that usually costs around $10 at restaurants.

Other notes:

  • Dal can range in texture from a thick stew to a soup, so even if your can of lentil soup starts on the thinner side, just keep simmering away. Whatever texture you end up with will work.
  • Flavor-wise, as long as you have curry powder or garam masala on hand that's not stupid old, you're in decent shape. If your spices are questionable, buy yourself a fresh jar and go small—there's no reason to let more curry powder go stale in your cabinet.
  • Think of this dal as a great way to practice for the real deal: By spending a fraction of the time making dal, you can add tweaks like adjusting seasoning and spice, introducing different fats like yogurt, cream, or coconut milk, or throwing acids like lime or vinegar into the mix. These are choices you can bring to a more elaborate version in the future. The list of dal recipes is infinite, so get cooking.