Restaurant-Style Vegan Dal Tadka

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This Restaurant-Style Vegan Dal Tadka is the most flavorful dal you will ever try! A deeply spiced Indian lentil stew that’s healthy, vegan, and gluten-free, yet pure comfort food. Stovetop and Instant Pot directions.
Prep Time: 15 mins
Cook Time: 50 mins
Total Time: 1 hr 5 mins
5 from 27 votes

Today, I am sharing possibly the most classic Indian dish ever: Restaurant Style Vegan Dal Tadka!

Dal, in short, is a deeply spiced, aromatic lentil stew. This recipe is healthy, vegan, and gluten-free, yet pure comfort food. In India, dal refers not only to the dish (of which there are countless regional variations) but also to lentils themselves.

Keep reading for all the things you need to know about making the best Restaurant-Style Vegan Dal Tadka!

Why you’re going to like this Vegan Dal Tadka

Pantry staples. Aside from a few aromatics (fresh ginger, green chili pepper, and cilantro), this is a pantry recipe. And if you don’t have green chili pepper, you can substitute with dried chili pepper!

Budget-friendly. In addition to being a pantry meal, it’s budget-friendly!

Authentic Indian food, restauranty-style. There are a ton of Indian recipes out on the interweb, and a lot of them, IMO, don’t qualify as authentic Indian recipes. They skimp on spices or just use one or two bottled spices. I can see the appeal of that, but if you want a truly authentic Indian dal that is restaurant-quality, this is the recipe for you!

Comfort food but healthy. It’s creamy, deeply spiced and aromatic, and tastes indulgent. BUT, it’s made with wholesome ingredients and high in protein, thanks to lentils.

What kind of lentils should I use for dal?

Dal is typically made with some sort of split lentil or split pea, but there are also variations that use split chickpeas (“chana dal”) or kidney beans (“rajma dal”).

In this recipe, I use split yellow lentils (“moong dal”), but you can easily substitute with red lentils or red split lentils (“masoor dal”), yellow split pigeon peas (“toor dal”), or even yellow split peas (“chana dal”). The cook time will vary, with the chana dal likely taking the longest, so you need to keep an eye on the dal as it cooks.

If you have access to only a basic grocery store, your best option would be red lentils. Some grocery stores will also carry split yellow lentils and/or yellow split peas. And of course, you can find all varieties of these lentils in South Asian grocery stores, as well as online.

Here are a few different lentil varieties available on Amazon. All of these varieties can work in this recipe.

woman's hands holding bowl of dal tadka

What kind of spices and aromatics should I use for this Vegan Dal Tadka?

As I explain in my recipe for Malai Kofta, there is kind of a basic formula for many Indian recipes.

(1) toast whole spices, dry or in oil;

(2) sauté aromatics such as onions, garlic, ginger, and green chili peppers;

(3) toast ground spices and stir into the aromatics.

We do all three of these steps in this recipe, except we toast the whole spices separately. This is called the tadka. More on that below.

As for the aromatics (step 2) and ground spices (step 3), this recipe keeps things pretty simple.

For the aromatics, I use a yellow onion, minced garlic, grated ginger, and diced green chili pepper. A few notes.

If you have trouble grating ginger, I recommend buying a microplane – it’s one of my favorite kitchen tools. Also, if you freeze whole ginger root, it actually makes it easier to peel and grate it.

As for the green chili pepper, I typically use a Serrano pepper. If you can’t find them, feel free to substitute with a jalapeño pepper (keep in mind they are significantly less spicy) or a Thai green chili pepper (they’re usually spicier).

If you are sensitive to spicy food, be sure to remove the seeds and membranes from the pepper – that’s where most of the heat lives. You can also use a jalapeño pepper instead, or use just half a pepper.

close up of dal tadka in a bowl

And, for the ground spices, I use just three spices: curry powder, turmeric, and garam masala. If your curry powder has turmeric in it, you can technically omit the turmeric. However, turmeric is such a antioxidant powerhouse ingredient, that I don’t mind adding additional turmeric (but don’t go overboard, as it can overpower a recipe).

If your curry powder is especially spicy (some brands are labeled “mild” or “hot”), you can use less than the amount called for in the recipe and/or scale back on the green chili pepper.

close-up shot of dal tadka in a bowl

Can you tell me more about this tadka?

Tadka is basically tempered and infused oil. Spices (ground, whole, or crushed) and sometimes aromatics (like ginger or garlic) or briefly toasted in oil (sometimes ghee, but I use oil to keep it vegan). Toasting the spices and aromatics in fat releases their essential oils, which is where the aroma and flavors lives.

The tadka is cooked in a separate pan from the dal (it takes about 2 minutes to make) and it’s poured over the finished dal just before serving. It’s what takes dal from decent to over the top. It adds SO much flavor and warmth the dish, so please please please don’t skip it!

Basically, you heat some a few spoons of oil in a pan, and once it’s hot, you add the whole spices. You temper the whole spices in the oil until they sizzle and become very aromatic, and then you add any other remaining seasonings (such as ground spices) until they’re very fragrant. Keep swirling or shaking the pan (or stir almost constantly) to ensure the spices cook evenly and don’t burn.

If you are adding ground spices at this stage, keep in mind that they bloom almost immediately, so be sure to add them last.

And this is where an Indian spice tin comes in handy. I have featured mine in many of my videos because, when you have to work quickly, it’s so much more convenient to have all the spices in shallow, uncovered tins rather than in individual deep spice jars. You can make the tadka in a small skillet, which is what I do, but traditionally, Indians will use a tiny, deep saucepan that looks like a ladle. This helps prevent the spices from jumping out of the pan.

Once your spices have released their fabulous aromas, take them off the heat immediately to prevent them from overcooking or burning.

My version of tadka contains black mustard seeds, cumin seeds, dried curry leaves, and dried red chili pepper. I think the curry leaves add the most flavor, so if you can get some or already have some, I’d say those are the most important part of the recipe. Here are some good-quality curry leaves on Amazon, though of course, you’ll find them better priced in South Asian grocery stores.

If you don’t have all the spices, fret not and read on below for the notes on substitutions.

Note: some versions of dal use the tadka as the foundation for the dish; once the spices have tempered, the aromatics are added, followed by the ground spices. There’s nothing wrong with this method (it’s the method I use for many of my Indian recipes), but I find that dal is more flavorful when the tadka is made separately and poured over the dal just before serving.

three bowls on a table

Modifications and Substitutions for this recipe 

Lentils. As I mention in the section on lentils, you don’t have to use yellow split lentils (“moong dal”) in this recipe. The best substitute would be red split lentils (“masoor dal”) or regular red lentils, but you can also use split yellow pigeon peas (“toor dal”) or split yellow peas (‘chana dal”).

Green Chili Pepper. If you don’t have a Serrano chili pepper, you can substitute with 2 jalapeño peppers. Or, you can omit entirely and add some Indian red chili powder to the ground spices. If you don’t have that, add a pinch or two of cayenne pepper.

Tadka. Every tadka is different, so if you don’t have all the ingredients I listed in my recipe, her are some substitute options.

  • Thinly sliced shallots or garlic
  • Fennel seeds or fenugreek leaves/seeds
  • Whole cinnamon sticks, broken into pieces
  • Whole cardamom pods or whole cloves
  • A few pinches of ground spices, such as cumin or coriander (be sure to add for just a few seconds at the very end to prevent burning)
  • Asafoetida powder is often added to dal, as it helps the body better digest legumes. Sadly that’s one Indian spice i don’t have in my spice cabinet.
dal tadka in a bowl

How to Make this Vegan Dal Tadka in the Instant Pot

First things first, I’d like to point out that I have an easy dal recipe in my cookbook :) Next, this recipe is super easy to make in the Instant Pot (it’s actually my preferred method).

Step 1: Heat up the oil in the Instant Pot. Once hot, add the onions and cook until softened. Add the ginger, garlic, green chili and cook for another minute.

Step 2: Add the ground spices for 30 seconds, stirring constantly, adding water as needed if the mixture dries out.

Step 3: Deglaze the pan with the water (I use 2 3/4 cups water). Add the soaked and drained lentils, salt, black pepper, and the diced tomatoes (canned or fresh).

Step 4: Pressure cook at high pressure for 10 minutes. Allow a natural pressure release for 10 minutes.

Step 5: Make the tadka on the stove, as indicated in the recipe. Pour the tadka over the finished dal. Finish with cilantro.

Watch! How to make Vegan Dal Tadka

In the above video, I show you how to make three different lentil recipes. For the Dal Tadka, fast forward to the 3:24 mark. And for more delicious recipe videos, check out my youtube channel!

If you give this recipe a try, be sure to tag me on Instagram with your recreations and please comment with your feedback below!

Restaurant-Style Vegan Dal Tadka

5 from 27 votes
This Restaurant-Style Vegan Dal Tadka is the most flavorful dal you will ever try! A deeply spiced Indian lentil stew that’s healthy, vegan, and gluten-free, yet pure comfort food. Stovetop and Instant Pot directions.
Prep Time: 15 mins
Cook Time: 50 mins
Total Time: 1 hr 5 mins
Course: Dinner
Cuisine: Indian
Diet Vegan
Keyword: gluten-free, indian recipes, nut-free, soy-free
Serving size: 4

Ingredients

  • 1 cup (200g) split yellow lentils, aka “moong dal” (see “Substitutions” section for substitute ideas)
  • 2-3 teaspoons coconut oil, or neutral oil of choice (more oil needed if not using a nonstick pan)
  • 1 medium yellow onion, chopped
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1- inch piece fresh ginger, grated or minced (about 1 tablespoon)
  • 1 serrano pepper, diced (de-seeded for a less spicy version; (see “Substitutions” section for substitute ideas)
  • 1 teaspoon curry powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
  • 1 teaspoon garam masala
  • 2 1/2 – 3 1/2 cups (600 -840 mL) water*
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
  • Black pepper to taste
  • 1 (14.5-ounce / 410g) can diced tomatoes**
  • 1 small handful of fresh cilantro, roughly chopped

Tadka

  • 1 1/2 – 2 tablespoons coconut oil, or neutral oil of choice
  • 1 teaspoon black mustard seeds, can substitute brown mustard seeds
  • 1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
  • 8-10 curry leaves
  • 1-2 dried red chile peppers, optional
  • Serving Options: white basmati rice or Indian flatbread; vegan coconut yogurt; fresh cilantro; thinly sliced red onions.

Instructions

Directions (Stove-Top)

  • Sift through the lentils and remove any pebbles. Soak the lentils in cold water for 15 minutes and then drain them.
  • Heat the 2-3 teaspoons of coconut oil in a heavy, deep frying pan over medium-high heat. Once the oil is shimmering, add the onions and season with a pinch of salt, and cook for 4-5 minutes until softened.
  • Add the garlic, ginger and serrano pepper. Cook for 60-90 seconds, or until garlic is lightly browned and the mixture is very fragrant. Add the curry powder, turmeric, and garam masala and stir to coat into the onions, and cook for about 30 seconds, stirring almost constantly.
  • Deglaze the pan with the water (I use about 2 cups at this stage), scraping up any browned bits on the bottom of the pan. Add the soaked and drained lentils, 1 teaspoon kosher salt, and black pepper to taste. Stir to combine.
  • Bring the dal to a boil. Then lower the heat and partially cover the pan with a lid (if your lid has a small hole on top to allow steam to escape, you can fully cover the pan). Simmer the dal for 30 minutes, or until the lentils are fully cooked through, stirring occasionally and adding more water as needed to add adequate moisture/liquid to the dal.
    NOTE: Depending on your lentil variety, the cook time might vary from 25 to 35 minutes.
  • Add the diced tomatoes and cook for 4-5 minutes, or until they’ve cooked down and are basically blended into the dal. If using fresh tomatoes, cook them until soft and broken down (fresh needs more time than canned).
    NOTE: If you want the dal to be thicker/creamier, run an immersion blender through some of the dal, but keep some lentils whole.
    Finally, stir in the chopped cilantro.
  • When the dal is done, make the tadka. Heat a small frying pan or tempering pan over medium-high heat. Add the 1 1/2 – 2 tablespoons of the coconut oil and, once it’s hot and shimmering, add the mustard seeds. Once the mustard seeds start popping, add the cumin seeds for a few seconds. Finally, add the curry leaves and dried red chile peppers (if using). Keep stirring or shaking/swirling the pan to help cook the spices evenly and to prevent burning, for a total of 60-90 seconds, or until very aromatic and the curry leaves have shriveled, the chili peppers and cumin seeds have turned darker. Remove from the heat immediately to prevent overcooking.
  • Pour the tadka over the dal and stir to combine. If desired, garnish with additional fresh cilantro and taste for seasonings. Serve with white rice and other optional toppings, if desired.

Directions (Instant Pot)

  • Sift through the lentils and remove any pebbles. Soak the lentils in cold water for 15 minutes and then drain them.
  • Select the Sauté setting on the Instant Pot and let the pot heat up. Add 1 tablespoon of coconut oil or oil of choice, followed by the onion. Cook until the onion is translucent, 3 to 5 minutes.
  • Add the garlic, ginger, and serrano pepper, and cook for 1 to 2 minutes, stirring frequently to prevent sticking. Add the Ground Spices and stir to coat into the onions, and cook for about 30 seconds, stirring almost constantly.
  • Select the Cancel setting and pour in 2 3/4 cups water, using a wooden spoon to scrape up any browned bits on the bottom of the pot. Add the soaked and drained lentils, 1 teaspoon kosher salt, black pepper to taste, and tomatoes. Stir to combine.
  • Secure the lid and set the Pressure Release to Sealing. Select the Pressure Cook setting at high pressure and set the cook time to 10 minutes.
  • Once the 10-minute timer has completed, allow a natural pressure release for 10 minutes before manually releasing the steam.
  • While the dal is depressurizing, make the tadka. Heat a small frying pan or tempering pan over medium-high heat on the stove. Add the 1 1/2 – 2 tablespoons of the coconut oil and, once it’s hot and shimmering, add the mustard seeds. Once the mustard seeds start popping, add the cumin seeds for a few seconds. Finally, add the curry leaves and dried red chile peppers (if using). Keep stirring or shaking/swirling the pan to help cook the spices evenly and to prevent burning, for a total of 60-90 seconds, or until very aromatic and the curry leaves have shriveled, the chili peppers and cumin seeds have turned darker. Remove from the heat immediately to prevent overcooking.
  • Pour the tadka over the dal and stir to combine. If desired, garnish with additional fresh cilantro and taste for seasonings. Serve with white rice and other optional toppings, if desired.

Notes

* For a creamy and thick texture, I start with 2 cups (480 mL) water and gradually add more water throughout the cooking process–about 3/4 to 1 additional cup of water (180 to 240 mL). If you want a soupier version, start with more than 2 cups water and add more water as you go.
** If using fresh tomatoes, use about 1 1/2 cups (300g) diced fresh tomatoes.

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37 comments on Restaurant-Style Vegan Dal Tadka

  1. Denali

    Hi Nisha! I’m super excited to make this tomorrow. However, I accidentally bought fresh curry leaves rather than dried before reading the full recipe. Do you know if I can use there, or should I adjust the amount?

    1. Support @ Rainbow Plant Life

      Sorry if we didn’t get back to you in time, Denali. Fresh curry leaves are more pungent so you will need to use less of them. You should simmer them for only a few seconds before oil is removed from heat, as they burn more easily than dried curry leaves. Hope that helped!

  2. Mariana

    5 stars
    This is SERIOUSLY DELICIOUS!!!!!! The first time I followed the recipe exactly, and the second time I added cauliflower which worked amazingly well.

    I made a special trip to the Indian supermarket just for the curry leaves and am so happy I did. As Nisha says, it really does elevate the dish…. I’m not sure if you’re supposed to eat them or pick them out (like you would with bay leaves) but they are so YUM that I ate them all and even had extra as my partner picked out his!

    1. Support @ Rainbow Plant Life

      Thanks for the amazing feedback Mariana! You can definitely keep the curry leaves in the final dish, Nisha loves the flavor they bring and adds them in. If you find it weird to bite down on them, feel free to scoop them out.

  3. Fio

    5 stars
    I made this recipe yesterday and absolutely love it! So delicious! I added some more ground spices (cumin, fenugreek & coriander) as my curry powder was running low and didn‘t have any curry leafs so I left them out and added 2 bay leafs to the tadka instead. Will definitely be making this again! 11/10

    1. Support @ Rainbow Plant Life

      Thanks for the lovely feedback, Fio!

  4. Diane

    5 stars
    So good.
    Easy and so satisfying.
    Thank you
    PS. Do you have a dal makhani recipe?

    1. Support @ Rainbow Plant Life

      Hi Diane, we do now! ;)

      https://rainbowplantlife.com/vegan-dal-makhani/

      Enjoy!

  5. Ann-Christin Muth

    5 stars
    Wow this Dal tasted AMAZING! The flavor composition is soo good! Thank you very much for this great recipe. :)

    1. Support @ Rainbow Plant Life

      Ann-Christin, So glad to hear you loved this recipe!

  6. Marija

    5 stars
    This recipe is fantastic! I have been a fan of lentil soup for a few years now, and I was trying to find a good recipe to prepare it in my new instant pot. I finally found it! This worked great for me, and 3.5 cups of broth is definitely perfect for a soupier version.
    Thank you very much, Nisha!

    1. Support @ Rainbow Plant Life

      Awesome, Marija. Thanks for your comment and for taking the time to review!

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