The surprising ingredient that makes delicious meals for just over £1

by Romy Gill, MBE, chef

When I was growing up in India, lentils were a staple part of our diet. Mum used to make all sorts of lentil dals as part of our thali meal, and thanks to her I always have lentils in my kitchen cupboard.

Red lentils are among my favourite pulses, as they’re quick to cook, healthy and versatile – and a 500g bag costs a little over £1. In India, they’re used to add texture, flavour and protein to dishes including dals, soups, curries, flatbreads, pancakes and fritters.

Red lentil pancakes are delicious with sweet or savoury toppings

How to make dal

One of the most common uses for red lentils in India is dal, a hearty and creamy dish. But there’s no such thing as ‘Indian food’: each region, town, village and even household makes dal very differently.

I’m Punjabi, but was born in West Bengal, where my dad worked in a steel plant alongside people from many Indian states. It meant I was brought up understanding different ways of cooking Indian food, using various recipes, spice blends and techniques for the same dish.

Our dal was very different from that of our Bengali neighbour, which was different again from the dals cooked by our friends from Kerala, Telangana, Nepal and other regions. Mum would soak the lentils for 20-30 minutes to remove the starch (it helps them cook more quickly), then rinse and cook them in a pan of water with salt and turmeric for 30 minutes. You need about 350ml water to 100g lentils, depending on the consistency you want.

In a separate pan, Mum would make a tadka, or tarka – a tempered mixture of spices, herbs, onions and tomatoes that can made in a huge number of ways. Her go-to tadka for a red lentil dal included onions (or shallots or spring onions, depending on what we had), ginger, garlic, red or green chillies, garam masala, cumin seeds, tomatoes, and fresh coriander or dried methi (fenugreek) leaves. Once the dal was cooked, she would add the tadka, stir well, and cook for a few minutes longer.

Try adding chopped summer squashes or pumpkin with the lentils or spinach or peas with the tadka – they’ll make the dal even more delicious and comforting, and a meal in itself.

Transform your red lentils into pakora with this simple recipe

How to make a delicious tadka

A dal can taste very different, depending on the tadka you use – Mum made about 15 variations.

To make the tadka, heat ghee, butter or oil in a frying pan over a medium heat, then add whole spices and fry for 1 minute, or until they start to sizzle. Add finely grated fresh ginger and garlic and fry for 1 minute. Next, add chopped red or brown onions, shallots or spring onions and fry for 3-4 minutes, before adding chopped tomatoes and green chillies and cooking for 2-3 minutes. Finally, add your ground spices and chopped coriander, mix well and cook for 2 minutes, then leave to rest.

Here are three tadka ideas:

1 teaspoon each of nigella seeds, grated fresh root ginger, tomato purée and ground coriander, 4 cloves of finely chopped garlic (or to taste), and 1-2 teaspoons of red chilli powder.

1 teaspoon each of black mustard seeds, tamarind paste, red chilli powder, ground cumin or garam masala and ground coriander, 6 fresh curry leaves, and 2 sliced green chillies.

1 tsp of panch phoron, 4 cloves of finely chopped garlic (or to taste), 2-3 sliced green chillies, and 3 chopped spring onions (both the white and green parts).

Red lentils form the basis of simple parathas

Romy Gill MBE is a chef, food writer, author and broadcaster, and a chef on BBC One’s Ready Steady Cook. She was the owner and head chef at Romy’s Kitchen in Thornbury, South Gloucestershire.