A lovely, light dal, fresh and delicately spiced, accompanied by the sweet and gentle aniseed of roasted fennel. Perfect with a mound of steaming basmati and some fresh chapati for a warming dinner, or as part of an Indian feast.
In Hindi, dal is the name for split dried pulses, as well as for the glorious soups they create, and there is a mind-boggling variety. Ranging from rich, sumptuous, and creamy, to light, zingy and fresh, they can be a labour of love fit for a feast, or a quick, easy dinner.
This recipe is on the quicker and lighter end of the dal spectrum. I use red split lentils as they are easily available in the UK and super speedy; you can roast the fennel to perfection in the time they take to cook. Some roasted cherry tomatoes add a lovely bit of juicy sweetness, and a final spritz of lemon juice gives everything a lift; ideal for the warmer days of fennel season when you still want a bit of comfort.
How to make red lentil dal with roasted fennel
To begin, pre-heat the oven and put a large saucepan over a medium heat with a couple of tablespoons of oil. Finely dice an onion and add to the pan once the oil is hot. Give everything a stir for a minute or two, then turn the heat down a touch. Fry the onions for 10–12 minutes, stirring occasionally, until soft, translucent, and just starting to colour.
While the onions are frying away, cut your fennel bulbs into quarters and remove any soft fronds (you can save these for garnish). Place on a baking tray with some oil, ensuring they are thoroughly coated, and sprinkle over a little salt. Set aside, until the oven is at temperature. Grate or crush the garlic and ginger, and finely slice the finger chillies. I use two for a mild to medium heat but you can use one if you prefer things on the milder side. Weigh out the red split lentils and rinse them in a sieve in plenty of cold water, then leave to drain.
Once the onions are soft, add the garlic, ginger and chilli and stir fry for 1–2 minutes, ensuring nothing sticks or burns, then tip in the lentils, a litre of cold water, a little turmeric and some salt. Give everything a good stir, bring to the boil, then reduce the heat to medium–low. Cover the pan with a lid and let the lentils simmer for 25 minutes, stirring two or three times to prevent anything sticking to the base of the pan and burning. You can add a splash more water if things are starting to look a little dry, but I found a litre was about right.
When the oven has reached temperature, pop the fennel on a high shelf and roast for 15 minutes. The remove from the oven and turn the wedges, and add some cherry tomatoes on the vine with a drizzle more oil. Return to the oven for 10–15 minutes until the fennel is soft and caramelized and the tomatoes are starting to blister.
Once the lentils are cooked, you need to make the temper. This is a technique which has been used for hundreds of years on the Indian subcontinent, where spices are cooked in oil at a high temperature then added to dal or sambar at the end of the cooking process. This allows the spices to release their oils and become beautifully aromatic.
Temper ingredients vary from region to region and household to household, but black mustard seeds and cumin seeds are fairly standard. To these I add some fennel seeds to compliment their roasted counterpart, and some curry leaves for their beautifully unique flavour. Use fresh curry leaves if you can find them; larger supermarkets or Indian supermarkets stock them. You can freeze them and they’ll defrost in seconds at room temperature. If you can only get dried curry leaves, available in most supermarkets, then soak these in some hot water for 5–10 minutes before using, and ensure they don’t burn.
Put a small frying pan over a medium–high heat with some oil, add the whole spices once the oil is hot, and fry for a minute before adding the curry leaves for another minute. Then tip the temper into the lentils, oil and all (it will spit a little so watch out), then stir everything together.
Finally, squeeze in some lemon juice, taste to check for seasoning, chop a little coriander if you like, and then you’re ready to eat. Serve with a pile of steaming hot chapati, some fluffy basmati, or whatever carbs you have available. Roti and paratha are both excellent accompaniments, but some chunks of good bread would also do fine.
Please let me know if you give this a try! You can comment below or use the star rating at the top of the post. You can also find me on Twitter and Instagram @greedybearbakes.
Red Lentil Dal With Roasted Fennel
A lovely, light dal, fresh and delicately spiced, accompanied by the sweet and gentle aniseed of roasted fennel.
For the roasted vegetables:
- 1 tbsp neutral oil (e.g. vegetable, sunflower, canola)
- 2 large or 3 small bulbs of fennel
- pinch of salt
- 200g (7oz) cherry tomatoes on the vine
For the lentils:
- 2 tbsp oil
- 1 large onion
- 4 cloves garlic
- 2.5cm (1 inch) ginger
- 2 finger chillies
- 250g (1⅓ cup) red split lentils
- 1 litre (4 cups) water
- ½ tsp turmeric
- 1½ tsp salt
- 1 lemon
- small bunch of chopped coriander (optional)
For the temper:
- 1 tbsp oil
- 1 tsp black mustard seeds
- 1 tsp cumin seeds
- ½ tsp fennel seeds
- 10–12 fresh curry leaves (or dried, soaked in hot water for 5–10 mins)
- Pre-heat the oven to 190C fan and put a large saucepan over a medium heat with 2 tbsp oil.
- Finely dice the onion and add to the hot oil. Stir for a minute or two, then turn the heat down a touch and fry for 10–12 minutes, until soft and translucent.
- While the onion is frying, chop 2–3 fennel bulbs into quarters and place on a baking tray with 1 tbsp oil and a generous pinch of salt. Ensure the fennel in fully coated in oil, and once the oven is hot, place on a high shelf to roast for 15 minutes.
- Crush or grate 4 cloves garlic and 2.5 cm ginger, and finely slice 1–2 green finger chillies. Weigh out the lentils and rinse in a sieve with plenty of cold water until the water runs clear. Add the garlic, ginger and chilli to the saucepan once the onions are cooked and stir fry for 2 minutes, then tip in the lentils, 1 litre water, ½ tsp turmeric and 1½ tsp salt. Stir and bring to the boil, then cover and simmer on a medium–low heat for 25 mins, stirring occasionally. If it starts to look a little dry you can add a drop more water, but you shouldn’t need much.
- Once the fennel has had 15 minutes, remove from the oven and turn over, and add the cherry tomatoes, still on their vines, to the tray. Drizzle with a tiny bit more oil and return to the oven for another 10–15 minutes until the fennel is soft and caramelized and the tomatoes have started to blister.
- Once the lentils are cooked, make the temper. Put a small frying pan over a medium–high heat, with 1 tbsp oil. Once hot, add 1 tsp black mustard seeds, 1 tsp cumin seeds and ½ tsp fennel seeds. Cook for 1 minutes then add 10–12 curry leaves and cook for another minute. Tip the oil and spices into the dal, being careful as it will splutter a little, and stir thoroughly.
- Squeeze the juice of half a lemon into the dal, and taste to check for seasoning. Cut the remaining lemon half into quarters to serve, along with some chopped coriander or fennel fronds for garnish. Serve with hot chapati, basmati rice, roti or paratha.