Lentil is a cheap and healthy source of protein in many cultures around the globe. In India, lentil is an everyday staple and most often cooked as dal. This Indian red lentil and spinach dal (stovetop) is a simple, but delicious way to eat lentils. You can either have it by itself as a soup or pair with brown rice, millet, or quinoa.
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What’s common between hummus, pasta, burger, ramen, and dal? These cuisines have become part of the global table. Dal has slowly been gaining recognition in many global restaurants. When, a couple of years ago, I had it in Switzerland at a mainstream vegetarian restaurant, I knew it had arrived at the global table.
After talking to a few vegan cafe owners in different part of the globe during my travels, it seems that there has been a shift toward adding more plant-based ingredients in diet. Health is usually the top reason cited as the popularity of these vegan restaurants by the owners.
This Indian red lentil spinach dal recipe (stovetop) is based on my grandmother’s dal recipe. In India, dal is a staple in everyday food and every state has its own take on the humble legume. This dal recipe comes from the northern part of India.
Should you soak or not soak lentils?
There seems to be a lot of confusion around whether you should or shouldn’t soak lentils before cooking. The short answer is, YES. My grandmother always soaked beans, grains, and lentils.
The reason to soak is embedded in science as well. Beans, grains, and lentils are rich in phytates–anti-nutrients that can bind with essential minerals such as calcium, zinc, and iron during the digestion process (more on this letter). There is, however, also a positive sides to phytates: they also bind with free radicals associated with causing diseases such as cancer and more .
There are ways we can reduce (but not eliminate completely) phytates from foods. Some of the methods are soaking, cooking (especially pressure cooking), and sprouting. If your diet mainly consists of grains/beans/lentils, it is best to observe phytate-reducing methods. A lifetime of eating these foods may cause slow depletion of essential minerals that your body needs on a consistent basis. It is worth nothing that there is no method that completely removes phytates from foods; therefore, you can still benefit from the free radical poaching activity of phytates even when you have used methods to reduce them.
On the other hand, if your diet mainly relies on animal-based foods, then it is not super important to reduce phytates due to the infrequent use of phytate-rich foods.
The other benefit of soaking is faster cooking time and better taste. Most grains/beans/lentils more than double in volume when soaked to their full capacity. So it is best to choose a soak container that can account for volume increase.
If you like cooking with lentils, here are other healthy/tasty lentil recipes:
Flavoring ingredients: herbs and spices
Lentils/beans are often associated with flatulence (gas). Most cultures that use beans/lentils as staples have figured out ways to reduce/remove gas producing effects. For example, in Mediterranean cooking, beans/lentils are often paired with digestion-boosting herbs such as thyme, sage, and rosemary. Similarly, in Indian cooking, fresh/dried herbs and spices are used to lessen the gas-producing effect of beans/lentils.
- Fresh ginger: ginger promotes digestion among other countless benefits. You can replace 1 tablespoon of fresh ginger with 1/4 tsp ground ginger.
- Fresh Garlic: garlic also stimulates digestion among other benefits.
- Whole cumin seeds: boosts digestion, contains antioxidants among other benefits.
- Turmeric powder: high in antioxidants. You can also use fresh turmeric. Replace 1/4 tsp of ground turmeric with 1 tbsp fresh turmeric.
- Coriander powder: boosts digestion among other benefits.
- Asafoetida powder: boosts digestion among other benefits. Asafoetida has a very strong smell and I generally don’t use it in my cooking as its smell is a migraine trigger for me. Feel free to omit if the smell is going to be a deal breaker for you.
Red lentils and accompanying spices are readily available in supermarkets. But be sure to buy pure spices as it is easy to buy spices with fillers, which not only dilutes the flavor but also may pose health risks. This is my favorite brand that I buy on Amazon.
Should you add coconut milk to dal?
When a recipe goes global, changes occur during the process of adaptation. Adding coconut milk to dal has almost become the norm, likely proliferated through bloggers and restaurants. In the traditional context, this everyday dal is often served with GHEE (clarified butter) but no cream is EVER added. There are some dal recipes that call for heavy cream or a ton of ghee and butter, but not the everyday day simple dal.
While adding coconut milk certainly adds creaminess, it also adds not so desired saturated fat–the kind it’s better to restrict in diet, especially if you are over 40 or have any cardiovascular condition such as high cholesterol or blood pressure (more on this later). If not adding coconut milk is going to deter you from making this dal, do go ahead and enjoy the creamy version with low-fat coconut milk.
Meal plan Indian red lentil and spinach dal
I usually double the recipe and use it within 2-3 days. But this dal can be refrigerated in an airtight container for 4-5 days and can be frozen for eight weeks. Dal tends to thicken when stored in refrigerator or freezer. To reheat, heat some water and then add dal. Bring to a gentle boil. To freshen up the flavor, you can also add 2 tbsp of fresh cilantro.
Step-by-step recipe of Indian red lentil and spinach dal (stovetop)
Do let me know in comments below, if you made this dal. Enjoy!
Indian Red Lentil and Spinach Dal (stovetop)
To cook the red lentils
- 1 cup red lentils (masoor dal without skin, soaked for at least 6 hours in 4 cups water)
- 2 cups water
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1 tsp coriander powder
- 1/3 tsp turmeric powder
Add lentils to the herb and spice base
- 1.5 tsp avocado oil*
- 1 onion (small, ~1/2 cup chopped)
- 2 cloves garlic (minced, ~1 heaping tsp)
- 1.5 tsp freshly grated ginger (can reduce to 1 tsp if too strong)
- 1/2 jalapeno pepper (~1tsp, finely chopped, or sub with equal amount green chili)
- 1 tsp whole cumin seeds (can sub with equal amount cumin powder)
- 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper (or to taste, can sub with equal amount red chili powder)
- 1/4 tsp salt (or to taste, no more than 1/2 tsp)
- 1 tomato (medium, ~1 cup chopped, can sub with equal amount canned crushed tomatoes)
- 2 cups baby spinach (coarsely chopped, can sub with 1 cup frozen spinach)
- 1/4 cup water (as needed)
To cook the red lentils
- Wash the lentils under running water and soak in 4 cups of water for at least 4-6 hours. Discard the soak water and add lentils with 2 cups of water, salt, coriander powder, and turmeric. Bring it to a boil and simmer for 5 minutes over reduced heat. Skim the foam that comes up while boiling the lentils. (Total Time: ~ 10 minutes)
Add lentils to the herb and spice base
- Heat a heavy-bottom pan over medium heat and add avocado oil. Test the oil by adding a couple of cumin seeds. When cumin seeds are added, they should sizzle. Add all the cumin seeds and let it brown a little. Please be sure not to burn the seeds.
- Once the cumin seeds have become brown, add onion, ginger, garlic, salt, cayenne pepper, and jalapeno peppers. Cook the mixture for 3-4 minutes adding some water if the mixture starts to stick to the bottom of the pan.
- Once onions are soft, add the chopped tomatoes and cook until soft (~4-5 minutes).
- Add the cooked dal to the onion and tomato mixture and cook for 10 minutes, slighly covered.
- Add the chopped spinach and cook for another 10 minutes. If the dal appears too dry, add some water.
- Cook brown rice, quinoa, or millet. It can also be served with chapati or whole-grain tortilla. You can also enjoy this dal as a soup.