Sweet and Spicy Tarka Dhal – Vegetarian Curry

Sweet and Spicy Tarka Dhal

Of all my least favourite questions, ‘So, when are you planning on… (insert big life decision here)?’,  is only just surpassed by; ‘What’s your favourite kind of food?’ This is a question I cannot rightfully answer. How is it possible to choose just one cuisine when there is literally an entire world of rich and exciting possibilities? On saying this, I have once or twice played the ‘if you had to choose…’ game, and come to the conclusion that if I really, really HAD to, I would choose to eat curry for the rest of my life.

I just cannot get enough of it. It’s everything I love about food: bursting with flavour, hot and spicy, varied. It’s also been my go-to cuisine of choice on many occasions, as above all else; it’s a cuisine that’s brilliant for vegetarians as well as meat eaters. They take vegetarian cooking seriously in India, which means there’s a wealth of choice when it comes to making a vegetarian curry – it’s not all about paneer and peas.

A lot of vegetarian curry dishes are designed as sides or starters, which I’ve found can mean they become a bit tiresome as a main. This isn’t necessarily the case for all dishes – this paneer and spinach recipe is as interesting as any meat curry I’ve ever had – and I’ve found a great way to vary the ones that are designed as small plates, is to serve them with different sides . The first time I cooked tarka dhaal I found it incredibly tasty, but given the smooth consistency the experience of eating it became a bit boring about halfway through. To counteract this I tried serving it with a half-portion of brown rice and some spiced sweet potato wedges – the result was a dish of varying textures, and a beautiful mix of sweet and spicy. Delicious.

This is another dish that’s great to cook when you’re running low on fresh ingredients. Red lentils are the perfect staple for the store cupboard. You can buy them cheaply in big bags and they add texture and substance to a number of dishes, namely soup, stews, and curries. They’re also quick and easy to cook, and a great source of fibre, protein, and iron. There’s a number of different spices involved with this recipe: garam masala, turmeric, cumin, coriander; all of which cost about £1 (depending on which supermarket you go to), and keep in the cupboard indefinitely. If you do a lot of Indian cooking, or even just cook curry once a month, I think they’re well worth buying in as staple components of the cuisine.

Sweet and Spicy Tarka Dhal

Serves Two

Preparation time: 10 mins        Cooking time: approx. 30 mins


For the tarka dhal: 

300g red lentils

1 tsp turmeric and garam masala

1/2 tsp dried coriander and cumin seeds

Handful of cherry tomatoes

1 small red onion, finely chopped

2 cloves garlic, chopped

1 or 2 chillies, chopped

Thumb-sized piece of ginger, finely grated

1 tsp butter

To serve:

1 large sweet potato

1 tsp chili powder

Brown rice

Fresh coriander


1. Warm the oven to around 200 degrees and prepare the sweet potato wedges – I like to make them skin-on and chunky – place the wedges on a baking tray, drizzle with olive oil, season with salt and chili powder, and rub in so that each wedge is coated.

TOP TIP: placing the wedges skin down on the tray makes them a lot easier to remove when cooked.


2. When the wedges are in the oven, place the lentils in a deep pan and pour over boiling water to about a finger’s width above. Bring the lentils to the boil, skimming off any scum that rises to the top with a large spoon, and stir in the turmeric and butter.

3. Turn down the heat and leave the lentils gently cooking away. Start cooking the brown rice (takes approximately 20 to 25 minutes).

4. In a separate pan fry the cumin seeds in a drop of oil, when they’re sizzling to satisfaction throw the onion, garlic, chilli, and ginger into the pan.

5. When the onion has softened add in the chopped tomatoes, garam masala, and coriander, cook until the tomatoes have softened and stir the mixture into the lentils.

6. Serve up the sweet potato wedges and brown rice, top the rice with the lentil curry, and sprinkle over some fresh coriander.

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