May 23, 2005
Red Lentils Tarka
posted by Nadia

Our good friend Adrienne raises what she calls the "cuisine of poverty" to a whole new level. Each time we dine at her house, she wows us with delicious iterations of rice-and-bean-based dishes, many involving semi-exotic spices and a pressure cooker. While these recipes always seem very complicated when I've helped her in the kitchen, she mailed me (by postal mail - how quaint!) a few relatively simple recipes that even I can find the ingredients for.

This recipe for Red Lentils Tarka, taken from the apparently indispensible Quick and Easy Indian Cooking by Madhur Jaffrey, is amazingly easy, involving little more than lentils, water, spices, and oil. It's delicious over white or brown rice, with some cucumber-yogurt salad on the side. While lentils on their own are typically somewhat bland, this recipe gets its flavor from the tarka, which is essentially an infused oil poured over the cooked lentils at the end of cooking and stirred in for flavor. The tarka for this recipe calls for cumin, chiles, and asafedita, but you could also add curry leaves, mustard seeds, garlic, onions, or pretty much any other aromatic spice.

A brief note on asafedita: Asafetida, also known as hing or "devil's dung," is made from the dried and ground resin of a flowering plant native to central Asia. Its "sensoric quality," as noted by one website, has been described as "rather repugnant," "horrible," and "sulfuric." They add, "Careful dosage is essential." Indeed, all these comments are true. Asafedita has a funky and somewhat sulfuric aroma that dissipates slightly when you cook it. I've now used asafedita in two recipes that I've gotten from Adrienne, and can happily report that there's nothing sulfuric about the flavor of the finished dishes. The taste asafedita leaves behind is a bit musky, however, adding a welcome hint of umami to many vegetarian dishes.

Red Lentils Tarka (Masoor Dal)
from Madhur Jaffrey's Quick and Easy Indian Cooking

1 1/2 cup red lentils
1 tsp. dried turmeric
1 1/2 tsp. salt
3 Tb. veg. oil or ghee
generous pinch of ground asafetida
1 tsp cumin seeds
1-3 dried hot red chiles

Wash lentils in several changes of water, and drain. Put lentils in heavy saucepan with 5 cups water and turmeric. Stir and bring to a simmer. Cover, such that the lid is slightly ajar, turn the heat to low, and simmer gently for 35-40 minutes or until the lentils are tender, stirring every so often. When tender, stir in the salt, and leave the pot on very low heat while you do the next step.

To make the tarka, put the oil in a small frying pan set over medium high heat. When the oil is hot, add asafetida, then the cumin seeds. Let the seeds sizzle for a few seconds, then add the chiles. As soon as the chiles turn dark red, lift the lid of the lentil pot and pour in the contents of the frying pan - both the oil and the spices. Cover the lentil pot immediately to trap the aromas.