Red Lentils with Cumin and Fried Onions

Red Lentils with Fried Onion

I have been very eloquent about my love of red lentils in a lot of posts before. This is another of my favorite recipe from home – my dida’s recipe,  a comforting dish fondly remembered and spiced with love and memories.

This recipe does not come with a name and I always called it dida’s dal.

Dal and rice is a comfort food in most states in India. Red lentils or masoor dal, as we usually call it is very popular in the eastern regions of India. It is served as an accompanying dish to any many meal at least few times a week. I had posted a simply seasoned red lentils once before; a version which uses no onion. Dida’s dal on the contrary is flavored mainly with a lot of fried onions.

Red Lentils

A big part of my childhood years had been spent with my grandparents. My dadu and dida (maternal grandpa and grandma), would live only a few minutes of walking from our home and I was fortunate enough to spend as much time with them as I did with my parents. During my younger years, when school would not be a full day affair, I would have at least one meal of the day with them. My dadu was a  retired head librarian, a voracious reader, a treasure chest of stories and an ideologist. I learned to hold on to the big bound dusty books, dictionaries and thesaurus from his revolving bookshelf and it was him who encouraged me to read Moby Dick (I hated it at that time). He told me stories of his childhood, of the places where I never went but can see it through his lyrics. He talked to me of the constellations while we sat outside in the yard with the jeweled skies canopied over us during the power cuts.  He also taught me to polish a shoe, tie a shoe lace or to perfectly part the hair! He also got me flowers for me simply because he loved me.

My dida was super woman. A school teacher during the day and a warm, loving and doting dida during the rest of the time. She was an efficient and awesome cook; her recipes ranged from simple homey comfort food to all the fascinating croquettes, cakes and cookies. They lived in a little house, and the kitchen was even smaller, devoid of any modern gadgets. The shelves were lined with spices, the baskets were always filled with fresh ingredients. Often times I sat by her while she cooked, talking of endless trivial things and asking questions. She introduced me to fruits and vegetables which I had never seen before. I loved going to markets with her, a few canvas bags clutched in our arms, walking through the maze of the bazaar and looking for the unusual finds – lotus seeds,  a pale green fruit which was perfumed like rose (and I do not remember the name for it), shalook phool (an edible flower similar to  lotus) and so many others. She would relive her childhood memories while she taught me. Here is a previous post with more of my beloved dida.

I remember having this particular dal with hot  rice and a nice squirt of fresh lemon, and most of the days this is all I wanted.  Dadu, dida and I had our meals together, and I would love to place a fresh green chili pepper on the white mound of steaming rice on my dadu’s plate.  He always liked biting into fresh chili pepper with his food. The swooooosh! and the sizzle of the dal as it got tempered, rang in my ears and the warm smell of the spices and the onions lingered around the house as it does still now. Some days I would refuse to eat any of the other dishes she cooked, but she slowly succeeded to coax me to tasting each and everything on the table. I needed to post this, before the recipe lost that special touch. Over the years, the memories remain, but  the situation and the adjustment to satisfy the taste of rest of  the family slowly changes the essence of the real recipe. I have enjoyed some food during my childhood, rustic, wild and down to earth, and comforting which are probably now lost to globalization and the to the tunes of  modernization. That special aroma and taste  is induced by memory and can be made to live forever.   Now I talk to my children of my childhood experiences, of people whom they will never meet, of places they will never go, incidents they can never relate to. But I can at least hand them down the recipes and the love of food.

Surprisingly I came across a very similar recipe in At Home with Madhur Jaffrey. Jaffrey calls it Bangladeshi Red Lentils and the ingredients and the process is very similar to the one I am writing on. My dida lived a few years of her early childhood in Bangladesh; that would probably be the common string that ties Madhur Jaffreys’ and dida’s recipe.

Red Lentils with Fried Onion

Red Lentils with Cumin and Fried Onions


  1. 1 cup red lentils/masoor dal
  2. 4.5 cups water
  3. 1 large onion
  4. 3 cloves of garlic, thinly sliced
  5. 3 red dry whole chili pepper
  6. 1 bay leaf
  7. 1 teaspoon cumin
  8. 1 tablespoon pure mustard oil (may be substituted with olive oil or any other cooking oil)
  9. salt
  10. 1/2 teaspoon turmeric
  11. 1/4 teaspoon sugar
  12. fresh cilantro/coriander leaves and lemon juice to garnish


Peel and divide the onion into half. Chop one half into small pieces. Make thin half moon slices with the other half onion.

Wash the lentils till water runs clear. Combine 4.5 cups of water, salt, turmeric and chopped onions. Cover and simmer till the lentils are fully cooked. Or use a pressure cooker, it is a much quicker way to cook lentils.

Heat oil in a pan. Add the cumin seeds and the red whole dry chili pepper. Once the seeds sizzle and the pepper turns dark brown, add the bay leaf, sliced garlic and the onion half moons. Add the sugar and fry till the onions are brown and crispy. Add the  cooked lentils to the pan, stir to combine and simmer at medium heat for about 7-10 minutes. If the dal/soup gets too thick, feel free to add some warm water, to get the desired consistency.

Serve hot, garnished with fresh coriander and a squeeze of lemon juice.

Serve as soup with crusty bread or as a side with plain rice (the usual norm to serve dal in India).

Note: The cooked lentils gets very thick and mushy as it sits. If you are not serving it right away, you might need to add water and adjust the salt before re heating. I would suggest reheating the lentils on the stove top; bring it to a slow simmer with the added water and serve right away.

The use of mustard oil imparts a distinct flavor which is essential to this recipe; substitute with other cooking oil if mustard oil is not available or if you do not like the flavor of the mustard oil.

Red Lentils with Fried Onion

The dal is on its way to dear Susan’s MLLA#32, hosted at Sandhya’s Kitchen.

Related Posts:

Red Lentil and Vegetable Soup

Simply Seasoned Red Lentils – a taste of home

Mercimek Corbasi – Turkish Red Lentils Soup with Sumac

Dal Palak: Lentils with Spinach

Methi Dal : Lentils with Fenugreek Leaves

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54 comments to Red Lentils with Cumin and Fried Onions

  • anh

    beautiful memories, Soma. Thanks for sharing them with us. It makes this dish extra special.

  • This is exactly how I make it and how my children love it! I could relate to so many things you have said in this post, though I remember my dadi for things like ‘puzhukku’ (from Palakkad) and for telling us stories during the evenings:). A very well written post, Soma. I told you I love tales and you gave such a beautiful one to start the day!

  • Deepa

    Hi Soma

    Tomar didar bapare pore khub bhalo laglo. Mosur dal recipe ta dekhe khub bhalo laglo.
    Wonderful preparation.

    Hamaree Rasoi

  • Your dida’s dal is even more delicious-looking because of all the fond memories Soma. :-). I have a similar tale with my maternal grandparents. Lovely post.


  • Mine is a similar way except the mustard oil. I find it very strong in cooking. I use it only for my pickles. Shall try it with this dal. Lovely to read about your love and dedication for your grand parents, Soma.

  • Wow..Thats a great recipe with classic pictures! loved your space Soma.

  • Ivy

    Lovely story Soma, full of memories and the lentil dish souds amazing.

  • Soma, you grandmother sounds so lovely and thank you for sharing your precious memories & this delicious red lentil recipe! xo

  • oh Soma such lovely memories, brings a smile on my face 🙂 I love masoor dal too but M doesn’t really like it much. And loving ur pictures.

  • Wow, what a fabulously fragrant and beautiful dish! Those are three of my favorite ingredients.



  • very nice blog, the story weaved between two generation is very touchy, and can be cherished by children and mother/grandmother of every generation

  • I like masoor dal too..and mostly I make when I dont want to go n cook sabji 😉 …your version looks so gud…I like that soup touch

  • Una buonissima zuppa, ciao ♥

  • You captured the longing and emotions so well Soma sending a longing through my heart as well.

    The dal is a delicious comfort food for sure.

  • My thakuma would make this recipe sometimes. Some dishes just bring out the nostalgia and this one does it for me.

  • Very nice post, Soma. You make the humble musurir dal look so special.

  • Awesome dal…looking so fresh and inviting. Felt like have it rt away from your blog…making me so homesick but will definately try ur version soon !

  • I have always made the Masoor dhal with tomatoes, this is a recipe I would like to try.

  • Looks delicious and my favourite kind of curry.

  • Your photos are so lovely….I have serious click envy here 🙂 And why is it that grandmas always make the bestest dal…..mine does too!

  • Lovely post and love the rustic touch you have imprted to the click as a whole….Paisly napkins, wooden backdrops and the amazing red lentils with the fried onions….


  • Ki sundor likhecho Soma. Amar sosur bari te onion diye Masoor Dal kore kintu tej pata na. Bhalo lage besh

  • Dave

    Nice recipe, Soma, and a great story. I willl make this tonight in honor of your grandmother.

    One question though. When you use bay leaves, are they the commononly available (in the US) bay laurel leaves? I have tried to find the Indian bay leaves at my local Indian food stores without success.

    Thank you:-)

    I think the Indian Bay Leaf that is used in the kitchen is actually different from the laurel leaf, tho’ I am not 100% sure. You will find them in the Indian Groceries as Tej/Tez Patta/Pata. If you do not have it at hand, just skip it. Won’t miss much in flavor in this recipe. It is very unusual that an Indian Grocery would not keep these.


  • Beautiful, beautiful post. Enjoyed reading and reliving my own lovely memories with my mother. You were lucky to have been able to spend such fantastic time with your grand parents. I missed that and I regret it very much. I want to make sure that my daughter gets to know her grandparents more than I ever had a chance to.

  • That was such a sweet story. My grandmother meant the world to me too so I can relate to your warm story. Your recipe looks delicious – I love the texture of red lentils. I’ll have to try it.

  • Dave

    Soma, regarding the bay leaf, I actually have seen a product being sold as “Indian bay leaf” at my local stores, but it looks like the regular old European bay. The venation on the tejpata looks very different to me. The tejpata looks like it has several veins running from the stem to the tip roughly parallel to the edge of the leaf. The bay laurel has a central vein with branches radiating off of it.

    Of course, everything I know about this comes from the internet. so my confidence that I know what I’m talking about is pretty low. I have a jar full of bay laurel in my spice cabinet already and I don’t want to just get more of the same.

    Thanks for your patience.

  • mohana

    I feel nostalgic didi….just too many overwhelming memories right now !!!

  • I can relate to what you were saying about your grandparents, mine were a special part of my life and the childhood memories I have of being with them are some of the most precious to me. I think that what you are doing is wonderful, to continue to make those foods and to talk about those memories with your children is so important

  • I’ve always felt that my family’s stories are best passed on through food; nice to see we’re not quite as strange as I thought!

    Beautiful-looking soup. I always use French green lentils but will look for red lentils to add to my collection.

  • mmmm….there’s nothing like masoor dal with chawal! I also like to eat shami kebabs w/ daal chawal. 🙂 I never add sugar to dal, it must balance it out…thanks for that tip.

    Nadia, I like Shami Kebabs too, and with dal chawal 🙂
    That little bit of sugar does not mess with the taste of the dal. The sugar is added to help crisp/caramelize the onions. and yes it does balance out the taste.

  • What a lovely post Soma…I suddenly miss my grandparents. All 4 of them.

    I LOVE dal and rice… I eat it at least 3 times a week, if not more. Indian comfort food at it’s best.

  • Delicious! I’m looking forward to a cooler season so I can make soups like this 🙂

  • WOW this masoor dal looks amazing…ummyyy dal!!

  • You know, I never had the opportunity to grow up with my Grand mom (s), my father being the youngest of four siblings, my grandmom was mostly bed ridden by the time we came along and not to mention hundreds of miles away. So your story makes me wistful – and I hope my daughter enjoys these times she has her with her grandmoms! 🙂

  • bee

    dave, indian bay leaves are actually cassia leaves. so is the indian “cinnamon” or dalchini. it’s a cassia stick.

    Bee!! Thanks a bunch for the clarification and good to see you here:-)

  • I have to tell you, I read Moby Dick as an adult and didn’t enjoy it either! I would enjoy this red lentil dish though. It sounds so flavorful with the onion and dried chile.

  • This red lentil dish is so special because of all the memories involved with it; I can picture your grandparents and what lovely people!

  • My friend taught me to cook dhal and her recipe is almost identical. The onions make it luxurious don’t they. Lovely memories.

  • This looks so yummy, Soma! I love dal of any kind.

  • Hi,

    I am new visitor to ur site and a follower too 🙂
    I have also participated n MLLA
    Pls visit my blog:

  • I really think that there is a special bond between children and their maternal grandparents…and yours sound so wonderful. I can picture the books, imagine the stories and feel the love. wonderful post.

  • Dhal mit gerösteten Zwiebeln…

    Den ganzen Winter habe ich mich gut gehalten, aber letzte Woche hat es mich dann doch erwischt. Da haben meine Nebenhöhlen wohl auf ihre Art versucht mitzuteilen, dass sie absolut keine Lust mehr auf Winter haben. Zwischen ausgiebigen Schlafetappen un…

  • Thank you for this delicious recipe and for sharing your childhood memories! After eating the dhal, I immediately felt better 🙂 Best wishes from Germany

    I am absolutely delighted that you tried this out. Thank you!

  • […] Red Lentils with Cumin and Fried Onion from eCurry […]

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  • al

    Awesome yet simple daal. I have tried some of your recipes , I have tweeked them a bit to suit my spice tolerance and I must say they are all 5star.

    Thank you!

  • […] una sola ricetta, ho dovuto fare un mix di due o tre sue zuppe che ho trovato, per la precisione questa, che lei serve con un po’ di cipolle fritte e riso bianco (e… ma quanto sono belle le […]

  • Ciao!! I’m glad I came here! I love India, I have just returned from my annual trip… and I still feel all the flavors of your kitchen. We definitely put between my favorite blogs! Sorry for my English!! Greetings

  • […] hand tier: dal (Indian red lentils with caramelized onions), mushroom masala, cucumber underneath cup of salsa […]

  • A very touching read. Beautiful photo and I will try this recipe today. I love to cook with Indian spice but I can never get a really authentic taste. I am from England and ‘traditional’ English food is now considered to be Indian cuisine.

  • Judy M


    I made this tonight in the pressure cooker–yum! I HAD TO ADD RED CHILI POWDER, I’m finally developing the palate! Hours later and the house still smells of fried onions, an added bonus as far as I’m concerned.

    You added Chili powder after the whole chili peppers??! Ms. Judy, Soma’s bad influence is creeping up on you 😛 just kidding. glad you enjoyed! These recipes are so adaptable, you can make any changes you want to them.

  • […] Recipe and Photos credit to […]

  • […] Recipe and Photos credit to […]

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