Lentil Soup with Coriander, Cumin and Peanuts Recipe

Lentil soup and star fruit salad

The flavors of Gujarati cuisine made a strong impression on me during my first visit. Until I started exploring the Western region of India, which consists of the states of Gujarat, Goa and Maharashtra, I had no idea what to expect. I suspected that the flavors would be very different from the Northern Indian fare one commonly finds in restaurants abroad, but I was unprepared for the diversity of tastes I was to encounter. It all started with a simple dish of dal, lentil soup, which is commonly served with rice towards the end of the meal. It looked unassuming—pale orange with green flecks of cilantro and black mustard seeds, but its sweet and tart flavors, with a delicate touch of toasted coriander and cumin, won me over immediately. It was simple, and yet elegant and memorable.

The use of spices in Indian cooking is a fascinating example of how cooking and perfumery can overlap. Most Indian women have an innate sense of what spices go with what vegetables, and in conservative Hindu households, no food is tasted until it is served (to do so would undermine its purity.) So, the cooks rely on their sense of smell in order to determine the seasoning balance.

Although regional Indian cuisines differ based on locality and also religious beliefs, the Western Indian cooking tradition relies on a smaller palette of spices. Coriander, cumin, mustard seeds, curry leaves, asafetida, turmeric, chili powder, coconut, and sesame seeds provide the main accord, so to speak. The cuisine in Maharashtra is earthy, rustic and bold, particularly noted for their fiery dishes. Goan cuisine has many Portuguese influences, but the rich, vibrant combinations of spices, seafood and pork are unique to this coastal region.

Gujarati cuisine, by contrast, is the most refined of the three, with a very distinctive sweet flavor profile. The floral-caramel note of jaggery, unrefined palm sugar, is woven into a fairly wide spectrum of dishes—from vegetable preparations to lentils and breads. The range of Gujarati vegetarian dishes is elaborate, even judged against the already rich Indian vegetarian tradition. Intricate savory snacks, called farsan, are served mezze style along with dinner and they provide another distinctive feature of the cuisine. To bite into a cumin dotted crispy wafer made from tapioca is an unforgettable experience.

Lentils provide a great canvas for experimenting with different flavors, and in the case of the Gujarati dal recipe that follows, spices can deepen and enrich the simplest of dishes. The main players in this dal are toasted coriander and cumin. If raw cumin has a sweaty pungency, toasted cumin is completely different—woody, smoky, with a hint of walnuts. Coriander also changes when toasted, with its orange-lemon note becoming darker and warmer. A sizzling flourish of spice scented oil is a distinctive Indian trait.  It provides a base note for this dal.

Dal gets only better the next day. It can be served Western-style as a soup course, along with some bread and olives. Indian style, it is served over white steamed rice. On a cold evening, it is difficult to envision a more comforting and satisfying fare. For the diet-conscious, it is worth noting that dal is an excellent source of protein hence its special status in Indian vegetarian cuisine.

Gujarati Dal: Lentil Soup with Coriander, Cumin and Peanuts

Serves 4 as first course

1 cup hulled split pink or yellow lentils
1 medium onion, minced
1/2 inch piece of ginger, peeled and minced
1/4c whole peanuts, unsalted, untoasted
1 walnut size lump of tamarind, covered with 1/2c of boiling water, mashed and strained (see note) or 2 tbsp. tamarind concentrate
4 tbsp. finely chopped jaggery (see note) or packed brown sugar
seasoning for lentils: 2tsp toasted coriander powder , 1/2tsp toasted cumin powder, chili powder to taste, 1/4tsp turmeric powder, salt
Sizzling Flourish (tarka, vaghar): 1tbsp peanut oil, 1/2tsp mustard seeds, 1/2tsp cumin seeds, 1/8tsp asafetida (see note)
Cilantro leaves for garnish.

To make toasted coriander and cumin powder: in Gujarati households, this dhania-jeera powder (coriander-cumin) is made in large quantities. The proportions used are 1 part cumin to 4 parts coriander. Roast seeds separately in a dry pan, shaking it time to time till they turn light brown. Cool and grind. Toasted spice powder is a wonderful addition to meat, fish and vegetable dishes (try tossing sliced potatoes with some, along with salt and olive oil before roasting.)

Bring lentils and 6 cups water to a boil. After 30min, add onion, peanuts and ginger. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer for 1.5h, checking time to time to make sure that lentils do not stick to the bottom and scorch. Depending on the age and variety of lentils, it may take even more time for them to soften. Once lentils start to fall apart, they are done. Once lentils are cooked, add the seasonings, sugar and tamarind liquid. The taste should be a nice balance of sweet and tart, so adjust tamarind and sugar to your taste, starting with a small amount. I prefer my dal very tart, but in Gujarat, it has a distinctly sweet taste. The recipe proportion is closer to the traditional version, however feel free to play with seasonings.

Make sizzling flourish, which in Gujarati is called vaghar (in Hindi, tadka). Heat oil in a pan over high heat, add mustard seeds and cumin to hot oil and cover the pan. Once the mustard seeds start popping, reduce the heat to medium and add asafetida. Swirl the oil and immediately add scented oil to the lentils. Mix, adjust salt and chili powder to your taste and simmer for 10min to meld flavors. At any point, if the lentils appear too thick, add more water; the finished dish should be soupy. Garnish with cilantro.

Enjoy!

Note on Substitutions:
The beauty of Indian cooking lies in its spontaneity, therefore, if you do not have tamarind or one of the spices, please do not feel constrained by the recipe. You can use lemon juice or chopped tomato instead of tamarind for tartness and you can vary the spices to your taste in the sizzling flourish. Learning from cooks in different parts of India, I have noticed the ease with which they would adapt dishes based on the mood and market offerings. When writing a recipe with its teaspoon and tablespoon measures, this spirit may be difficult to convey, but in many ways, it is an important feature of this diverse and fascinating cuisine.

Ingredient Notes:
Tamarind—the pulp of tamarind pods is used widely in the African, Latin American and Asian cuisines. It has a wonderful sweet and tart flavor, with a strong plum-apricot note. It is sold in East Asian, Indian and Latin American shops in forms of either concentrate or large square lumps (my preferred way to buy tamarind, example). To use it, break off as much as needed, cover it with boiling water and let it steep till the fibers soften. Strain. The resulting thick puree can be frozen. Besides providing a delicious tart note in sour dishes, it also makes a delicious drink: dilute further with water, mix it with sugar to taste and add a pinch of salt.
Jaggery—unrefined cane or palm sugar. It is less sweet per weight than white sugar and has a great complexity, ranging from orange blossom flavors to caramel.
Asafetida—gum obtained from a species of Ferula plant. It has a pungent smell when raw, but once cooked, the flavor becomes smooth and savory, reminiscent of garlic or leeks. In Indian stores, it is usually sold in a powder form, which makes it easier to use. If you are unable to find it, you can substitute 1tsp minced garlic in the recipe above. Flavor will be slightly different, but still very delicious.

Photography © Bois de Jasmin.

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29 Comments

  • Olfactoria: Good morning, V,
    oh my, now I am really hungry!
    Just last evening I had red lentil soup with mint yogurt. It was delicious, although probably just a very westernized version of real indian cuisine. Thanks so much for providing the recipe for Dal, I´ll try that soon.
    Sadly I´ve not been to India, but I haven´t been ready yet, I think for India one needs a lot of inner calm to really enjoy it and go with the flow (or utter chaos, see what I mean) of it, I am way to anal 😉 But I adore the cuisine. December 14, 2010 at 3:19am Reply

  • Marina: Well now that’s just cruel…… December 14, 2010 at 8:51am Reply

  • Victoria: B, if you love the cuisine, then in India, you will discover such a wide spectrum of flavors, so much diversity that it is almost impossible to describe. This dal is very easy to make, and you can change flavors a bit every single time you make: add more or less ginger, minced garlic or onion can be sauteed with spices (minus asafetida), add more chili or use minced green chili peppers for an extra heat.

    In all of my visits to India, I found that one can never be ready for what she has to offer. Things that at home would be quite surreal seem normal within days. You will have no choice, but to let everything go. My first visit happened during the worst possible time of year–hot season when it is just about to turn to monsoon, so it is over 50C and 100% humidity. No AC where I stayed either! Now, I can hardly recall any of that, but I remember the piny-apricot taste of perfectly ripe mangoes, the coolness of salty-sweet lemonade, the sun weathered man who gave a handful of the most fragrant rose petals I have ever smelled, the sight of monkeys resting arms folded and legs crossed near the taxi stop… It is not all a romantic fairy tale–the poverty is quite shocking at times. Yet, to see people enjoying their humble meal of rice and dal by the roadside and then inviting you to partake of it with smiles and gestures that overcome a language barrier, now, that puts things in perspective. December 14, 2010 at 8:59am Reply

  • Victoria: M, just print out the recipe, give it to your better half (he can reduce spices for T) and then you sit back and enjoy. 🙂 December 14, 2010 at 9:14am Reply

  • Sveta: I love these food and fragrance posts and your stories of India really make me want to go there.
    Will try making this soup tonight. I used to cook some Indian dishes before and I still have the main spices. Would lemon be ok instead of tamarind? December 14, 2010 at 9:54am Reply

  • Victoria: Sveta, thank you!
    You can use lemon instead of tamarind. I do that sometimes to change the flavor. It is a different kind of acidity, brighter, less fruity, but still very good! December 14, 2010 at 10:00am Reply

  • Myra: Very cool! I have been craving some dal lately. I am originally from Goa by the way and the goan way is slightly different. We don’t use peanuts, tamarind and jaggery; instead, 1 small chopped tomato (I prefer Romano) sauteed right after the onion, garlic & ginger and 1 finely chopped Indian chili pepper added at the end.

    I enjoy the goan version but there is something about the tartness in the Gujarati dal that I like better and I could never quite find the right recipe. I will try yours today.. it sounds absolutely delicious! Thank you for this most delightful post. December 14, 2010 at 10:31am Reply

  • meg: victoria, you write so beautifully. my parents are from gujarat but i’m a born and bred new yorker. i will be visiting india next month for the first time as an adult and i seriously hope to absorb the flavors and scents as deeply as you have. December 14, 2010 at 11:17am Reply

  • dee: Oh, Yum! I made a very similar soup the other night, and when I was toasting the coriander and cumin (prior to the mortar & pestle step), I was thinking, if I could capture this smell, it would become my signature scent. I don’t even believe in a signature scent!

    Indian spices are SO sensual and beautiful—what a great gift to humanity! 🙂 December 14, 2010 at 12:39pm Reply

  • Ragna: Ahhhh…I will make this for dinner tonight..minus the tamarind (on shopping list) and minus the sizzling flourish…(no peanut oil or mustard seeds..on list now too)
    It has been a few years since I did much Indian cooking and now it is time to replenish my spices!!!
    I am now craving this warm and fragrant food….in this damp and chilly weather~
    Thank you!!! December 14, 2010 at 1:17pm Reply

  • Victoria: @Myra
    Oh, Goan is among my favorite regional cuisines in India, above all, because I associate tastes and smells of Goan food with being on vacation. The first time I came in Panjim, it seemed like such a green, mellow paradise after the hustle of Delhi and Mumbai. In fact, I stopped by the market during my lunch break today to get some meat for vindaloo.

    I love dal in general, but the tartness of Gujarati dal appeals to me the most (for the same reason I also love the green mango Andhra style dal). Peanuts is a very Marathi-Gujarati touch, and I was surprised to see how frequently they are used in everything, from vegetable dishes to sweetmeats. December 14, 2010 at 1:56pm Reply

  • Victoria: @meg
    Meg, I am very excited for your visit. Gujarat is an incredible state, and its cultural heritage sites are among the most impressive in India. I am not sure where in Gujarat you will be, but if you have a day to spare, a visit to Champaner is a must.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Champaner
    It is a Unesco Heritage Site, a large historical town of palaces, temples and mosques, in perfect condition. And its Jama Masjid would rival easily some of the more famous Indian monuments. Gujarat does not promote its tourist industry, and as a result, all of these sites are pretty much empty. The only people we encountered were the staff. December 14, 2010 at 2:03pm Reply

  • Victoria: @dee
    D, I completely agree on the smell of toasted coriander and cumin, it is seductive. I have made a large patch of these two spices (1 c coriander and 1/4c cumin) and as I was grinding them, I was in heaven. The two make a perfect pairing: woody-nutty cumin with a caramel-orange note of coriander… In India, I once was served grapefruit sprinkled with salt and toasted cumin powder. It was one of the most dramatic and memorable flavor pairings I have encountered. December 14, 2010 at 2:09pm Reply

  • Victoria: @Ragna
    Ragna, I hope that you will enjoy it!
    Yes, definitely feel free to substitute and experiment. I added a note to the recipe, because the most distinctive trait of Indian cooking is its flexibility and spontaneity.
    I would only advise not to skip the flourish completely, even if all you do is saute some garlic in any vegetable oil till it turns golden. It really adds a nice depth of flavor. December 14, 2010 at 2:12pm Reply

  • March: What a lovely thing to read on a windy, cold, miserable day. December 14, 2010 at 2:21pm Reply

  • Victoria: @March
    March, thank you! 🙂 I am almost unprepared for the winter chill that is now gripping our shores. Went out during my lunch break and could not run fast enough to get back. December 14, 2010 at 2:35pm Reply

  • all womenstalk: I really like the idea of this mouth watering cuisine. I love cooking and this one is a good one to partake. It made me hungry upon reading the whole issue. Thanks a lot for a lovely and interesting post. Keep up the good work. You really nailed it by featuring authentic foods. More power. December 15, 2010 at 3:26am Reply

  • Carla: Very interesting that Indian women smell, rather than taste, to check seasoning. I taste constantly when I cook. It would be a challenge to go by smell alone. December 15, 2010 at 10:11am Reply

  • Victoria: @allwomenstalk
    Thank you, I love spices in both food and fragrance. It is fascinating to explore them. December 16, 2010 at 9:23am Reply

  • Victoria: @Carla
    Carla, it is not true as a rule, but according to Hindu purity guidelines, if saliva has touched the food, it is no longer pure. Especially if a woman who follows these scriptures is making a special meal, some of which she might offer to the deities.
    Yet, in general, most women I have observed cooking did not taste. They were also older, so I am sure that experience has a lot to do with that. My Ukrainian grandmother tastes her dishes once, if ever during cooking, but she has an innate sense of how much salt, etc. is needed. I definitely do not have that, and I taste constantly! 🙂 December 16, 2010 at 9:27am Reply

  • gautami: Yumm! I enjoy Gujrati food too. Another spice that gives any Indian dish a distinctive Gujrati flavor to me is Ajwain (smells like thyme). I usually add Ajwain to tadka, and later add ginger-chili-coconut paste to make anything Gujrati style.
    I am looking forward to your Vindaloo recipe too. I never seem to get it right. December 17, 2010 at 9:59am Reply

  • Victoria: Gautami, I love ajwain too. Whenever I make chakli or any other lentil fritters, I add some, and it immediately makes me think of Gujarati farsan.
    I will post the recipe for vindaloo after the holidays. It is such a perfect winter meal. December 17, 2010 at 10:05am Reply

  • Yelena: I have been staring at your photo ever since we wrapped up dinner trying to conjure the taste from memory. I will have to make this in the coming days and we will put the DVD of our trip on the screen! December 17, 2010 at 8:10pm Reply

  • Victoria: Lena, thank you! It is very easy to make, we definitely had it in India together on more than one occasion! 🙂 December 18, 2010 at 3:57pm Reply

  • Rohini Sharma: Victoria, i have been reading your blog for the past couple of days and this particular post made me write to you, primarily because I am an Indian. You have captured the essence of Indian cooking so beautifully…and Lentil soup is a staple diet for us , pan India..yes, we Indian women smell our food, rather than tasting it while cooking..be it for turmeric or chilli…the right smell confirms that the food is palatable.
    Food is quite a reverent subject in the lives of Indians, not surprising since we have a whole collection of mystical spices and ingredients that lend awesome taste notes to the food…thanks for this post !!! February 28, 2014 at 3:55am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much, Rohini! I love the way Indian cooking combines spices and different ingredients. Even at its most simplest, the dishes have layers of flavors. And then, the sheer variety of food across the country is fascinating. February 28, 2014 at 12:45pm Reply

  • ElenavL: Dear Victoria, I apologize if I am a sloppy reader but I seem to miss when and how the onion is supposed to be added. November 17, 2015 at 10:52am Reply

    • Victoria: Just add it at the same time as lentils, ginger and peanuts. November 17, 2015 at 11:00am Reply

    • Victoria: P.S. It’s not you who is a sloppy reader, it’s my fault. I forgot to include it, but the mistake has been rectified. Thank you for drawing my attention to it. November 19, 2015 at 2:18pm Reply

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