How to make saag tarka dhal – comfort curry at its best

Rich, creamy, smoky and delicious, a spinach and lentil dhal like this is the dish you want to complete any Indian curry feast. Saag tarka dhal is vegetarian and easily vegan. Here’s how to make a quick version of a timeless classic.

Saag tarka dhal or tarka dal

I’ve lived in Australia for a long time now, but every so often I feel the pangs of homesickness. But the things I miss from the UK – apart from my people – are usually food based.

A good Indian curry is often hard to come by in Australia – or it’s at least different to the food I grew up with in the UK. So to calm this particular call to my heart, I cook up a feast at home.

Here are some of the other curries I’ve shared in the past that often land on the dinner table when the mood takes me.

Saag tarka dhal or tarka dal - smoky goodness

Saag tarka dhal or tarka dal is made with spinach and lentils. I also add mushrooms because – why not?

Saag tarka dhal recipe

Perennial, popular and ubiquitous in all Indian households, tarka dhal comes in many forms. Everyone seems to have their own version.

This is my interpretation, and although it probably doesn’t follow traditional methods, it still tastes amazing. I hope no curry purists find my recipe too heretic!

To make this dish vegan, take out the butter (or ghee) and replace with coconut oil.

Saag tarka dhal or tarka dal - with other curries

With my tarka dhal I also made chana masala – you can find the recipe here

Here’s what you need:

– 1tsp coriander seeds
– 2tsp cumin seeds
– 6-10 mushrooms – sliced
– 1/4 cup oil
– 2tsp butter + 1tsp for garnish
– 2tsp curry powder (Keen’s)
– 2tsp garam masala
– 2 bay leaves
– 1 onion – diced
– 2 garlic cloves – finely chopped
– 1 tin lentils
– 3-4 drops of liquid smoke (I love Culley’s applewood)
– 2 handfuls of fresh spinach – you can use frozen spinach at a push
– Salt and pepper to taste

Saag tarka dhal or tarka dal - melt the butter

Here’s what you do:

1. Toast coriander seeds and half the cumin seeds in a hot pan until aromatic, tip into a mortar and allow to cool. Grind up with the pestle and set aside.

2. Dry fry mushrooms until liquid has leeched out and set aside.

3. Add oil and butter to pan (or you can use ghee), add ground coriander and cumin, whole cumin seeds, garam masala, curry powder and bay leaves. Fry into a paste until the cumin seeds start to pop and sizzle.

4. Add onion and garlic and cook until onions have absorbed the curry colour. Add the mushrooms, lentils (drained and rinsed) and the liquid smoke. Stir until well combined.

5. Add the spinach and put a lid on the pot. Cook on medium-to-low for about 5 minutes until the leaves have wilted a little. Stir the pot to combine the spinach, then cover again and cook on low.

6. When the spinach has cooked down and combined well, serve immediately or leave in the pot, covered, until dinner time and reheat for a few minutes before serving.

7. When you’re ready, garnish with a nob of butter and either allow to melt or bring to the table and melt with a blow torch for a bit of culinary theatre. This also brings a little more smokiness to the dish.

In fact, it’s the smokiness of this dish that I love the most. Traditional methods impart smoke with a piece of smouldering charcoal in a foil tray set in the pan.

I don’t trust myself not to burn the kitchen down or set off all the smoke alarms, so a dash of liquid smoke or a touch of smoky paprika will do the trick.

You notice I also use tinned lentils here. This is purely for speed and ease. I’m sure using dried lentils gives a whole different dimension to the dish, but when you’ve got a hungry Christina clawing at your back, let’s see which option you go for then!

Let me know what your favourite curry is or if you’ve ever tried cooking tarka dhal. Would love to hear about it.

Saag tarka dhal or tarka dal

Saag tarka dhal or tarka dal

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