Dhal Curry refers to lentils cooked Sri Lankan style, a delicious accompaniment to rice. Also referred to as Parippu Curry or just Dhal, this dish is usually thick and creamy. Today, let me take you through the process of making this Sri Lankan Dal.
If you have been reading my blog for some time now, you would know how much I am fascinated by food from different parts of Asia. Our holidays in Thailand have led to me cooking a lot of Thai food at home. I have also dabbled a bit in Indonesian and Malaysian flavours (and loved the experience!). My latest obsession is Sri Lankan flavours – in some part due to the gorgeous Sinhalese song Manike Mage Hithe that has gone viral lately, and partly because the husband has been working closely with a Sri Lankan colleague these days. Both of these situations have given me a glimpse into the beauty that Sri Lanka is. While visiting Sri Lanka remains a distant dream, I have been trying to get closer to the country in my own way – by reading up about its culture and by making some of its dishes in my kitchen. This Dhal Curry is one such Sri Lankan dish I prepared, and it turned out so flavourful that it became an instant hit with the family.
What goes into Dhal Curry
The ingredients used in Dhal Curry are quite similar to those used in our Indian dal varieties, but the flavour profile is completely different. The husband’s colleague was sweet enough to sate my curiosity about Sri Lankan food and tell me how to cook a few basic dishes. This Dhal Curry might not have been possible without the pointers he gave me.
Dhal Curry is typically made using masoor dal or toor dal or a mixture of both. I have used a mix of both types of lentils here.
Coconut milk is an essential part of the Dhal Curry, which gives it its creaminess and flavour. Pandan leaves (called ‘rampe’ in Sinhalese) are also an important part of this dish.
Sri Lankan curry powder – a spice mix made using ingredients like coriander seeds, fennel, cumin and cinnamon – is another important ingredient that elevates this dish. There are little variations in the curry powder recipe from one family to another. From what I understand, a combination of ground coriander seeds, fennel and cumin seeds works as a good substitute – which is just what I have used here. Madras Curry Powder is another close substitute too.
How to make Dhal Curry
Here is how to go about it. It is a simple enough dish to put together.
Ingredients (serves 4):
1. 1/2 cup masoor dal
2. 1/4 cup toor dal
3. Salt to taste
4. 1/4 teaspoon turmeric powder
5. 1/2 teaspoon roasted coriander powder
6. 1/4 teaspoon fennel seeds powder
7. 1/2 teaspoon roasted cumin powder
8. Red chilli powder to taste
9. 1/2 cup thick coconut milk
10. 3/4 cup water or as needed
11. Juice of 1/2 lemon or as needed
12. 1 tablespoon of finely chopped coriander (optional)
For the tempering:
1. 1 medium-sized onion
2. 1 medium-sized tomato
3. 4-5 cloves of garlic
4. 3/4 tablespoon coconut oil
5. 3/4 teaspoon mustard seeds
6. 3/4 teaspoon cumin seeds
7. 2 dry red chillies
8. 2 green chillies, slit length-wise
9. 1 sprig of fresh curry leaves
10. 2 small pieces of pandan leaves
1. Take the masoor dal and toor dal in a wide vessel. Wash well under running water. Drain out the water.
2. Now, add in enough fresh water to cover the lentils completely. Place the vessel in a pressure cooker. Pressure cook on high flame for 6-7 whistles or till the lentils are thoroughly cooked and soft. Let the pressure release naturally.
3. In the meantime, we will prep the other ingredients required for tempering the Sri Lankan Dal. Chop the onions and tomatoes finely. Peel the garlic cloves and crush them coarsely, using a mortar and pestle. Keep ready.
4. Put together the other ingredients needed for the tempering – mustard, cumin, dry red chillies, slit green chillies (not shown in the picture above), curry leaves and pandan leaves. Keep ready.
5. When the pressure from the cooker has completely gone down, get the cooked lentils out. Mash thoroughly.
6. Take the mashed lentils in a heavy-bottomed pan and place on high flame. Add in salt to taste, turmeric powder, roasted coriander and cumin powder, fennel seeds powder and water as needed. Mix well and allow to come to a boil.
7. At this stage, turn the flame down to low-medium. Add in the coconut milk, stirring constantly. Now, allow the mixture to cook on low-medium flame for 3-4 minutes.
8. In the meantime, we will prepare the tempering for the Sri Lankan Dal. In another pan, heat the oil and add in the mustard seeds. Once they sputter, add in the cumin seeds, dry red chillies, pandan leaves and curry leaves. Let these ingredients stay in for a couple of seconds.
9. Add in the chopped onion and crushed garlic. Saute on medium flame for about 2 minutes or till the onions start browning.
10. Now, add the tomatoes and slit green chillies to the pan, along with a bit of salt. Cook on medium flame till the tomatoes soften. Sprinkle a bit of water if the ingredients get too dry.
11. When the tomatoes are soft, add the tempering to the lentil mixture simmering in the other pan. Mix well. Let everything simmer together for 2 minutes, then switch off gas. Adjust salt at this stage and add in more water if the mixture has gotten too thick. Keep it slightly runny as the mixture has the tendency to thicken up with time.
12. Mix in the lemon juice and coriander (if using). Your Sri Lankan Dal or Dhal Curry is ready. Serve it hot with steamed rice, with sambol or a dry curry on the side.
Is this Dhal Curry vegan and gluten-free?
The above recipe is completely vegetarian and vegan, suited to those following a plant-based diet. It is entirely gluten-free as well.
Tips & Tricks
1. Adjust the amount of water you use, depending upon the consistency of the Dhal Curry you require.
2. I have used fresh pandan leaves here, which I bought from Trikaya online. You may use frozen pandan leaves instead too. It is also not too difficult to grow a pandan plant in a small apartment garden. Either way, I would highly recommend using the pandan – it imparts a lovely fragrance to the Dhal Curry.
3. I have used a mix of roasted coriander powder + roasted cumin powder + fennel powder here. Instead of this, a dash of Sri Lankan curry powder can be added to the dal, too. Madras curry powder can also be used as the closest substitute for the Sri Lankan curry powder.
4. From what I understand, in several Sri Lankan dishes, the tempered ingredients are added in at the very end. This helps retain the freshness of the tempering. Hence, I have followed the same proceedure here – I have added in the tempered spices + onion + garlic + green chillies + curry leaves + tomato + pandan leaves at the end, after the lentils have simmered for a bit.
5. Adjust the quantity of lemon juice you add, depending upon personal taste preferences. The same goes for the number of green chillies you use.
6. I have used a mix of masoor dal and toor dal here. You may use 3/4 cup of either lentil, instead.
7. Some Sri Lankan families add in spices like fennel seeds, cloves, cinnamon and green cardamom to the tempering too (especially when there’s no curry powder used). However, this is purely optional and I have avoided them.
8. I have used store-bought coconut milk from Dabur. You can make it at home instead, too. Adjust the quantity as per personal taste preferences, but don’t overdo it. Too much of coconut milk makes the dal extremely creamy and detracts from its taste.
9. Remember to keep the Dhal Curry on the runnier side. It thickens up quite a bit with time. The ideal consistency of Sri Lankan Dal, from what I understand, is thick, definitely not watery, somewhat similar to our Dal Fry.
10. I have used cold-pressed coconut oil here, in the tempering. Feel free to use any other variety of oil that you prefer.
Did you like this recipe? Do tell me, in your comments!