Dhal: The basics with ghee (clarified butter)

Here’s a simple Ayurvedic recipe for Dhal that can be used on a regular basis. Fresh, home-cooked food is one of the keys to vibrant health and longevity.


 5 small onions
 375 gr red lentils
 1 tablespoon of mustard seeds
 1 teaspoon of coriander seeds
 1 teaspoon of cumin seeds
 1 tablespoon of turmeric powder
 2 red Chiles
 Ghee (Clarified Butter)
 250 gr unsalted organic butter (whole stick)

First wash and inspect the dry lentils; simply pop them in a sieve under running water and check them for any debris/other grains and make sure they’re rinsed and clean.
Place all the lentils in a large Saucepan. The common wisdom is to use 1 1/2 cups of water/broth to 1 cup of red lentils. For our experiment we used roughly 5 cups of water which produced a soupy result. So 2 1/2 — 4 cups of water will likely provide a thicker Dhal, depending on the consistency you wish to acheive. If you are adding vegetables, think ahead and factor in the water content from the vegetables and make an intuitive adjustment to the water you are adding. E.g. if you are adding a can of tinned tomatoes you could omit one of the cups of water you were going to add.

Bring to the boil, reduce the heat to medium low and simmer. Add the chopped onion and regularly stir the mixture to prevent sticking to the bottom of the pan. Salt to taste throughout. Our lentils took just a touch over 20 minutes to become tender. This may be an idiosyncratic time depending on our ‘stove top’ as most recipes suggest 15 minutes to the point of being cooked. However, the idea is to start testing and tasting the lentils once they begin to look translucent. Once cooked to your preference take the saucepan off the heat and cover with a lid. It’s important to remember that the lentils will continue to slowly cook in their own heat. Many cooks who understand this will attempt to time a recipe so that it is at an optimum temperature and consistency when it hits the table.


So… you have the lentils on the heat. Now is the best time to put your 250 grams of butter into a smaller pan. Once again on a low to medium heat melt the butter until it is liquid. Once it’s fully melted, allow it to continue to heat until it comes to a gentle boil. The milk proteins will first form a thin white layer over the entire surface, then expand into a thicker foam. As the butter boils, the foam coating will break apart into smaller clusters. At this point you can start skimming the clusters from the top using a sieve like implement or spoon. Technically, it’s not the butterfat but the water in the butter that’s boiling — that’s a good thing, since we want the water to cook off. 
 However, at this point you may want to adjust your heat. If you simmer, the period of cooking takes longer and there will be more manual skimming. But the flavor will be full and round and you will be at less risk of burning the milk proteins which may contaminate the flavor. On the other hand if you continue with high heat the water will boil out quicker and you can skim less, or at the finish, achieving a faster result… but you must be careful not to burn those parts of the foam that sink to the bottom.

We went with a slow simmer method which involved plenty of scooping and slow stirring with a lot of gentle attendance. Eventually an aroma filled the room which signaled to us that the ghee was ready. The colour had become golden and on inspection there were lightly browned milk protein beads sitting on the bottom. We strained the butter of contaminants and returned it to its pan. This process took nearly 20 minutes.

The flavor of Indian food is helped along with a liberal use of aromatic spices. We added 1 tablespoon of turmeric to the lentil mix and stirred it in thoroughly. Then we poured enough of the clarified butter into a frying pan to lightly cover the surface. Placing the frying pan over a moderately high temperature we waited until it was hot then added the seeds. 
 On retrospect we realised that we could have staggered the seeds in order of their hardiness. 
 This would involve first adding the Mustard seeds and waiting: then adding the Coriander seeds and waiting. Finally adding the cumin seeds which are the least immune to toasting. In this way the seeds would heat and start to pop in unison. The overall effect being that the seeds are toasted but not burnt.
Finally we added the Chilles — chopped. These chilles could have been added whole (with tops removed) into the Dhal from the start. But we enjoyed the aroma of the chilles as they quickly browned, and whose oils would certainly have mixed into the ghee.

The Final Mix
 We stirred the seed, chille and ghee mix into the Dhal. Then we added the Ghee from the other saucepan, (the whole lot) guaranteeing a rich full flavor.

On tasting our Dhal had a surprisingly full flavour — round and spicy, nutty with depth, perfect to warm the vitals. While the consistency of our Dhal was soupy this did not affect flavour or dissuade our delight.