Fat Free Vegan Indian Tarka Chana Dal (An Easy Oil-Free Curry Recipe)

by on June 4, 2012


Tarka Dal is also known as Dal Tarka or Tadka depending where you are in India. Like many Indian foods the names of dishes are phonetic so often you will see similar spellings of dal such as dhal or dahl. There is no right or wrong way to spell these dishes, I just use the most common spellings for ease of use.

Dal is a dish that is made with any variety of lentils including but not limited to split red lentils (most common in thin dal soups), black urad dal (used in creamy Dal Makhani), split urad dal (ground with rice to create Dosas which are Indian crepes) toor/tuvar dal which looks just like chana dal and yellow split peas but is smaller, and moong dal a small yellow split lentil that cooks faster than chana or yellow split peas also used in soups.

Cook’s Thesaurus has excellent descriptions and pictures of various lentils and how to tell them apart. This may sound quite confusing at first, but it’s unlikely that you will fully immerse yourself into using every type of lentil in Indian cuisine, so don’t worry. The most important thing is just to make sure you’re buying the right lentil and label what you buy if it’s coming from bulk bins. As they are all different sizes and thicknesses they can take different amounts of time to cook.

chana dal (skinless split chickpeas)

You can almost see that they look like little chickpeas/garbanzos split in half and are not fully rounded like yellow split peas. Toor/tuvar dal is also yellow and similar in size, but it is not the same.

Chana dal is used in East India and is widely available at Indian markets, bulk dry good sections at the health food store or ethnic market and online. Tarka is a method where spices are cooked/tempered in hot oil and added to the beginning or end of a dish being cooked. Since we’re going for oil free methods of cooking however, all of the ingredients are combined and cooked together in water instead. Tarka dal is usually cooked in 4 steps and can be quite complicated so I simplified the method. For this reason we have slightly increased some of the spices as the flavours will be subdued through cooking. Whole spices are best as they will retain more flavour, if you substitute all the whole spices with powdered spices you may have to reseason it to taste when it’s done cooking and it may not be as flavourful.

(Oil-Free) Simplified Indian Tarka Chana Dal

Serves 6-8 as a side

Ingredients:

2 cups chana dal (skinless split dried chickpeas, also spelled channa dal, dahl, or dhal)
1 large onion, diced finely
8-10 cloves of garlic, minced
2 inches of ginger, minced (or 1 tsp ginger powder)
1 14.5 oz/411 g can fire roasted crushed tomatoes (I use Muir Glen Organics)
7-8 cups/1.6-1.9 L of water (depending on how thick or thin you want it)
2 tsp turmeric
1 small cinnamon stick
3 black cardamom pods (or green)
8 whole cloves
4 bay leaves
3 tsp cumin seeds
2 tsp black mustard seeds
1-2 tsp red chili powder (or more to taste) I used Frontier Organic Chili powder blend
1 1/2 – 2 tsp salt
Fresh ground pepper to taste
handful of chopped fresh cilantro/coriander (to garnish)

Pressure Cooker Directions:

  1. Combine ingredients (except salt, pepper and cilantro), into a heavy bottomed pressure cooker, mix well, cover and heat over high heat (on gas stove) until a steady stream of steam escapes the pressure valve. Turn the heat down to medium high and cook for 20 minutes or until the dal is just tender (not mushy.)
  2. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Taste test and add additional chili powder if desired. (I added a 1/2 tsp of roasted cumin powder as it’s one of my favourite spices.)
  3. Garnish with fresh cilantro and serve with basmati rice or brown rice if desired.

Slow Cooker Directions:

Alternatively you can try cooking this in a slow cooker on high. Check on it between 4 and 5 hours. When chana is soft, season to taste with salt, pepper and additional spices such as chili powder if desired.

You can also probably cook this over the stove, but you will require more water as it will dissipate. I would guess this would take between 60-90 minutes of cooking time on a stove depending whether it was electric/gas and what temperature it’s cooked at. Make sure you stir it and check on the water level so it does not burn to the bottom of the pot.

Additional Tips:

If serving this to guests unfamiliar with Indian curries, you may want to take out all of the pieces of cinnamon stick, bay leaves, cardamom pods and cloves before serving. Be careful, the dal is hot! Generally we just pick these pieces out while we’re eating. But just make sure to warn people as a mouthful of clove or cardamom can be a little unpleasant!

If you like your dal thick as pictured above you can use the lower amount of water. If you find your dal is a little too runny you can add some corn starch slurry to it to thicken it up. Use 1 tsp mixed in a 2 tablespoons of water at a time and heat through until you get the desired consistency.

You may want to serve this as a side dish, or even as a main meal with rice or Indian flat bread. For a main meal this will make enough to serve 4-6 people.

Refrigerate or freeze any leftovers for a quick healthy meal later on in the week.

Don’t use regular yellow split peas for this recipe. They take a really long time to cook and won’t be the same, despite looking almost like chana dal.

Have you ever had Tarka Dal before? Have you ever tried chana dal?

{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Cucku Khan August 25, 2015 at 2:24 AM

Hi dear Veronica.. recipe is good.. question is, can i make daal moong n daal masoor with same recepi? Can i add oil in it?

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2 Veronica Grace September 7, 2015 at 3:45 PM

I don’t cook with oil sorry

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3 Yulia August 21, 2014 at 5:08 PM

The slow cooker directions are way off….. 🙁 After 4 hours the dal was only 1/2 cooked. After two more hours on high it was still not cooked all the way and there was WAY too much water (I used 7 cups, as per the recipe). I ended up cooking it down on the stove for almost another hour to get it fully cooked and to be the right consistency.

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4 Veronica Grace August 26, 2014 at 11:38 AM

Altitude and age of your lentils/beans affects cooking time. If you have had lentils stored for a long time they often take much longer to cook, similarly if they’ve been sitting in a store for a long time as they get more dehydrated and dry. The best solution is to only buy them when you need to from busy supermarkets so you aren’t buying or storing old lentils or beans that end up taking longer to cook than you expected. Sea level also affects cooking times, so if you live in an higher altitude the air pressure is less and could result in longer cook times.

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5 Sarah August 11, 2012 at 8:41 PM

If I do this in a slow cooker, wouldn’t the acidity of the tomatoes make it hard to cook the split chickpeas? I find if I add any type of tomato to beans trying to cook, they won’t. I also live at 6100 feet so sometimes I have to adjust for altitude. Do you think this is a concern for this particular dish? Thanks!

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6 Low Fat Vegan Chef Veronica August 11, 2012 at 9:02 PM

I don’t find tomatoes hinder cooking chickpeas. You will have to adjust for the altitude yes. It will take longer to cook with lower air pressure.

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7 Linda June 26, 2012 at 12:41 PM

Thanks for the recipe; I use red lentils, onion, garlic, turmerick, garam masala, chutney and extra chilli, it always goes down a treat.

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8 Low Fat Vegan Chef Veronica June 26, 2012 at 1:25 PM

Split red lentils? They cook quite fast yes. I like using them when I’m in a hurry, on the stove top they take about 20 minutes to cook and can be used in soups or a curry.

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9 Françoise June 7, 2012 at 2:34 AM

I love Indian cooking and will try this one.
One question. Could you clarify: is it lentil, chickpeas or split peas?
You use “lentil” in the email and “chickpeas” in the recipe. Or is it “split peas”?
Thank you for your recipes,
Françoise

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10 Low Fat Vegan Chef Veronica June 7, 2012 at 7:15 AM

It is chana dal a skinless split chickpea I clarified that in the ingredient list. Don’t use yellow split peas. It is not the same And not for dal. The name chickpea is confusing, it is not a pea, it is a bean.

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11 Jill June 5, 2012 at 3:53 PM

I am wondering if you could put all of the larger spices into a cheesecloth bag so it is easier to fish out before eating. Or would this stop some of the flavor from being infused into the chana dal?

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12 Low Fat Vegan Chef Veronica June 5, 2012 at 10:08 PM

Yes! You can definitely do that. Just make a little bag so that the spices can move around. I just don’t have any cheesecloth and I hate wasting it so I don’t use it. But it’s easy to do and faster to remove the whole spices at the end.

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13 Carla June 5, 2012 at 1:55 PM

I love dahl, but I have only ever tried the shop bought Tardka Dahl.
I will definitely make my own, now that i have the recipe.
Thanks it looks and sounds great!

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14 Low Fat Vegan Chef Veronica June 5, 2012 at 2:03 PM

Excellent Carla! This recipe is really easy to make and much simpler.

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15 Stephen June 5, 2012 at 12:03 PM

Veronica, does this recipe call for Indian chili powder, or Western chili powder like that used to make Texas Chili?

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16 Low Fat Vegan Chef Veronica June 5, 2012 at 12:30 PM

I used regular red chili powder. If you have a Texas chili powder “mix” that is for spicing bean chili, it’s not that. It’s just red chili powdered.

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17 Joelle June 5, 2012 at 10:53 AM

I did not know that was what Chana Dahl was! Too bad it’s a pain for me to get. Chickpeas are easy, split no. = )

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18 Low Fat Vegan Chef Veronica June 5, 2012 at 11:14 AM

It’s easy to get online at Amazon. I put links to all of the “exotic” ingredients for those that don’t live near ethnic markets. This one is free shipping. I try to select the items that are the cheapest but with free shipping. Chana Dal

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19 Casey May 23, 2016 at 11:16 PM

If you don’t have a local Indian grocery store perhaps there is a Middle eastern grocery store nearby. They should have Chana Dal.

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20 Stephen June 5, 2012 at 10:37 AM

MDH makes a great boxed chana dal masala spice mix, that’s quick and easy: Saute 1 chopped onion in a little water until translucent then add 1 can chopped canned tomatoes, add 1 tbs of the mix and cook 2-3 minutes. Meanwhile, cook 1 cup chana dal in the pressure cooker for 8 minutes. Mix the dal and tomato-onion-spice mixture together and simmer 5 minutes. That’s it. I get the mix at the local indian market.
Love your blog Veronica! Great Recipes. Vive La Belle Canadienne!

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21 Melissa June 5, 2012 at 9:47 AM

i’ve never tried chana dal before. usually i do lentil soup – fast and easy -but i am SOOO bored of my usual!

i’ll definitely try this: been along time since i tried using cardamon pods in soups, but have been cooking with whole spices, including the whole cumin seeds & cinnamon sticks before. very healthy eating for a rainy day or if you feel a summer cold coming on – its the blend of cloves, cinnamon & mustard seeds, i think.

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