After an abundance of Christmas fare, my taste buds start to crave spicy foods. On top of the cold snap currently hitting Europe, a comforting bowl of Chana Dhal is a perfect choice, especially as it is naturally gluten-free and nutritious.

What is Chana Dhal?

Dhal (also spelt as dal, dall, daal or dahl) is the generic name for lentils in India, which are used to prepare a slow-cooked, vegetarian, creamy lentil curry combined with tempered spices known as tarka in Hindi.

Chana dhal lentils are sold mainly at Indian or Asian supermarkets, however yellow split peas or Toor Dhal (aka split pigeon peas) can be substituted. As you can see in the photo below, they look very similar in appearance and taste slightly sweeter and “meatier” than other lentils.

Although Dhal is usually mild in spiciness and kid-friendly, you can up the heat if you like it spicier simply by adding more chilli.

What is Tarka?

Tarka is an infusion of hot oil or ghee with spices that is added to dhal and other Indian dishes either at the beginning or end of cooking time to give distinct flavours and aromas.

What is Garam Masala?

In Hindi, Garam means hot and Masala is a term used to refer to any sort of spice mix. It is said to have originated in Northern India where it was used during the cold winters for its warming properties. It is also used in traditional Ayurvedic medicine, as it is known to warm the body and increase the metabolism. If you are new to Indian cookery, garam masala is an important spice blend to have on your spice shelf. It is a combination of ground roasted spices that has a mix of sweet, hot and savoury flavour and aromatic notes. Many Indian dishes require garam masala as a finishing touch for an authentic flavour. Homemade is far superior to store-bought, so if you really want the real deal, I highly recommend blending your own garam masala in under 10 minutes by following my homemade garam masala recipe here.

How do you eat Chana Dhal?

Like most curry dishes, Chana Dhal is typically served with rice and a flat bread like naans, doosas or parathas. The idea is to dip the bread in the dhal and scoop it out, similar to dunking a bread roll in a hot stew, but so much more rewarding if you like spices.

I serve my dhal dishes with my homemade gluten-free naan

which is one of the easiest recipes to make if you like naans. I cook mine under the grill in less than 3 minutes. It tastes and looks so similar to the real thing.

Chana Dhal (Slow-Cooked Lentil Curry)


Makes 4 servings

For the chana dhal:

  • 230g chana dhal or yellow split peas, washed and drained
  • 1.5 litres water
  • 2 tablespoons brown or coconut sugar
  • 1 fresh green chilli, sliced thinly
  • 1 teaspoon fresh ginger, grated
  • 1 teaspoon garlic, minced
  • 3 fresh tomatoes or 300 ml tinned tomatoes, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • ¼ teaspoon store-bought of homemade garam masala
  • 2 teaspoons to 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • Fresh green chilli and fresh coriander, to garnish

For the tarka (tempering):

  • 2 tablespoons ghee or sunflower oil
  • ½ teaspoon cumin seeds
  • ½ teaspoon mustard seeds
  • 1/8 teaspoon fenugreek seeds
  • ½ teaspoon turmeric powder
  • ½ teaspoon chilli powder
  • 10 fresh or dried curry leaves (fresh is best)

Step by Step Instructions

1. Wash and drain the chana dhal until the water runs clear. This may take three times.

2. In a large pot, bring the chana dhal to a boil in 1.5 litres of water and remove any scum that appears on the surface.

3. Cover, leaving the lid just slightly ajar, turn heat to low and simmer gently for approximately 90 minutes, until it is soft. Stir frequently during the last 30 minutes to prevent sticking. Add more water if the water level runs low and the dahl is still not soft enough. This is a good time to prepare the Gluten-Free Naan Bread

4. Take the lid off and increase the heat to medium-high to allow some of the water to evaporate. The water should be just below the chana dhal.

5. Add the brown sugar, green chilli, ginger, garlic, tomatoes and salt. Mix well.

6. Bring to the boil, then simmer for 10 minutes while preparing the tarka

7. In a small frying pan or pot, heat the ghee or oil until it starts to shimmer.

8. Add the cumin seeds, mustard seeds, fenugreek seeds and curry leaves. Allow to sizzle and pop for 10 seconds, shaking the pan.

9. Add the turmeric and chilli powder to the hot oil.

10. Immediately, stir and add the tarka to the chana dhal.

11. Sprinkle with store-bought or homemade garam masala.

12. Turn off the heat.
13. Pour 2 teaspoons to 2 tablespoons of lemon juice, according to your taste.
14. Garnish with more chilli and fresh coriander/cilantro

My recipe uses a slow-cooked stove-top method, however if you want to speed things up by using a pressure cooker or Instant Pot, the results are equally as good. Instead of cooking the dhal for 90 minutes on the stove, cook on high pressure for 5 minutes and allow the dhal to release pressure for around 10 minutes during which time, the dhal will continue to cook. The further additions of tarka and other ingredients can be finished on the stove or the “Sautee” option with the Instant Pot.

For the homemade garam masala:

  • 35g coriander seeds
  • 30g cumin seeds
  • 2 tablespoons green cardamoms
  • 2 tablespoons whole cloves
  • 1 tablespoon black peppercorns
  • 3 cinnamon sticks or 4 tablespoons cinnamon powder
  • 1 tablespoon fennel seeds
  • 1 teaspoon nutmeg powder
  • 1 star anise
  • 4 small or 2 medium dried bay leaves
  • 2 dried red chilli

Makes enough for a 350ml jar.

Step by Step Instructions

1. Heat a frying pan to medium-low heat.

2. Roast cardamoms, cloves, peppercorn, cinnamon sticks (not cinnamon powder), star anise, bay leaves and dried red chilli, stirring constantly until they release their aromas. Be careful not to burn them.

3. Remove and allow to cool on a plate.

4. Add the coriander seeds and roast, stirring until their aroma is released. Add to the other roasted spices on the plate.

5. Finally roast the fennel seeds for 30 seconds, stirring. Then add the cumin seeds, stirring until their aroma is released.
6. Transfer these seeds to the rest of the roasted spices.
7. Place them on a freezer-proof bowl or plate and leave them to cool down in the freezer from 30 minutes to a few hours. This gives a very nice texture when ground.
8. When ready to grind the spices, transfer the garam masala spices to a coffee bean grinder or food processor and blitz the spices until they have completely broken down.
9. If you prefer a finer garam masala, simply sieve the spices into a bowl and pour them back into the grinder or processor and blitz once more.
10. Store the garam masala in an airtight, glass jar.