This is one of my go-to dishes when I have nothing in the fridge and don’t feel like going shopping. It has great flavor, with sweet caramelized onions and warm spices, and it is made entirely with pantry items: lentils, rice, spices, onion, and garlic. Unlike with most lentil dishes, the lentils and rice are cooked together, reducing the number of pots.
The key to this dish (as with our yellow lentil curry) is the tadka: a blend of caramelized onions, garlic, and spices. The onions are cooked until very dark, much longer than we are used to in Western cooking, giving the dish a great depth of flavor. Red lentils are quick-cooking and largely dissolve in this dish, making for a creamy and textured curry.
There is no magic to the blend of spices I chose here. If you don’t have garam masala, get some–it is essential to Indian cooking. Otherwise, any number of spices work here, like cumin, coriander, turmeric, mustard seeds, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, fenugreek and even pre-made “curry powder,” which is really just a spice blend. My garam masala from NYC’s Indian markets is quite hot, but add chilies if you desire more heat. Let the lentils be your canvas.
Red Lentil and Rice Curry
- ½ cup red lentils - masoor dal
- ¼ cup basmati rice
- 1 small onion
- 4 garlic cloves
- 1 tablespoon ghee or neutral oil like canola
- 1 teaspoon whole cumin seeds
- 1 teaspoon black mustard seeds
- 1 teaspoon garam masala
- 1 teaspoon coriander powder
- ½ teaspoon cardamom powder
- A handful of dried fenugreek leaves
- A handful of cilantro or parsley for garnish
- Sliced chilies for garnish (optional)
- Indian or Greek yogurt for serving
Heat a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the lentils and toast them for a minute or two, then cover with water by about an inch and bring to boil. When the water boils, add the rice, partially cover the pot, and simmer until the rice is done. If the pot becomes too dry, add more water.
Meanwhile, prepare the tadka. Heat a nonstick skillet over medium heat. Slice the onion and garlic as thin as you can. When the pan is hot, add the ghee and the cumin seeds and mustard seeds.
When the mustard seeds start to pop, add the onion and garlic to the pan, with a fresh or dried chili or two if you wish. Lower the heat to medium-low and cook, stirring occasionally to prevent burning, until the onion and garlic are very dark and caramelized. Add the garam masala, coriander, and cardamom powder and cook for another minute, stirring, until the spices are nicely combined.
When the rice is done, increase the heat to boil off any excess water if necessary - the consistency should be like a soupy risotto. Crush the fenugreek leaves in your hands and add them to the pot. Stir in most of the tadka, leaving some for garnish.
Turn the lentils and rice into a serving bowl and top with the remaining tadka. Chop some cilantro or parsley and sprinkle on top, with some sliced chilies, if you wish. Serve with yogurt and beer.