Oh my dahling: my deskside devotion

May 12, 2011

Some of you may remember my ill-fated experiment with dhal many mooons ago – an experience that made me gag. Well, thanks to a fantastic vegetarian Indian cookbook I was sent recently, I have not only got back on the dahl horse but the two of us have taken to spending many long, loving hours together.

What I’ve discovered, you see, is that dahl – and my particular favourite, spinach – is quite possibly the perfect desk-side lunch. And what with all the structural editing and rereading and copy-editing and rewriting of my forthcoming novel that’s been happening lately, I have been spending more time than usual glued to the office chair, working away to meet the required deadlines. At times like these, as many of you know, nicking off to the kitchen to potter about making lunch feels way too guilt-inducingly like wagging school.

So after a few goes at making dahl from different recipes, and falling head-over-heels in love with it, one Sunday I prepared for a very intensive week of editing by making a giant pot of spinach dahl. Flavour-wise, I find it improves more with each day (even up to four or five days in). It has the comfort-food factor to boot: soft in the mouth, and deeply nourishing to the body and soul. I have eaten this dahl every day for lunch for almost a week, and not tired of it one little bit.

Once it’s in the fridge, the only lunch preparation required is a bowl, a couple of pings in the microwave, and a spoon. Except, I must add, the one crucial addition when serving is a dollop of spicy chutney or hot pickle – this is absolutely essential in my view.

Another great thing about dahl is that it’s so easy to concoct your own version. After once or twice following a recipe, now I just bung in whatever I feel like on the day, with quantities and textures and ingredients varying each time. I am sure there are some dahl purists out there, and if so I would very much love to hear your views on texture and heat and starchiness and so on. But if you’re a fan of the bung-it-in-and-see-what-happens approach to cooking, this could be your new favourite too.  This recipe is a result of combining a Madhur Jaffrey recipe and one from the Mysore Style Cooking book, I think, as well as a few others I read online.

This serves about six people – or enough for one novel’s intensive week-long copy-edit.


  • 3 bunches English spinach, thoroughly washed and leaves separated from stems. roughly chop leaves; keep the stems from one bunch and discard the others. Finely chop the stems and set aside.
  • 2 cups dahl – I used skinned and split moong dahl, but you could use any old kind of split lentil (there are so many different types of dried lentil, split and whole, that work for dahl – try a few different ones to discover your favourite)
  • 1 tsp turmeric
  • 1 bay leaf
  • vegetable oil
  • 2 tsp brown mustard seeds
  • 2 tsp cumin seeds
  • 2 or 3 onions, finely chopped
  • 5cm piece ginger, finely chopped
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp chilli flakes
  • green or red chillies, finely chopped, to taste
  • 2 tbsp shredded coconut


1. Thoroughly wash the dahl in several changes of water, then add to a heavy based pan with 8 cups water, the turmeric and bay leaf.

2. Stir and bring to a simmer. Cover almost entirely with the lid and leave to simmer gently for up to an hour, or until the lentils are tender.

3. In a separate pan, heat a little oil and fry the mustard and cumin seeds over medium heat until they start to crackle and pop.

4. Add onion, ginger and finely chopped spinach stems, saute gently until translucent.

5.  Into the pan put the spinach, firmly packing it in if necessary, and cover.

6. Cook over gentle heat until the spinach is thoroughly wilted and shrinks right down.

7.  When the dahl is cooked, combine the contents of the two pans and mix thoroughly over low heat.

8. Add the remaining ingredients, adjusting seasoning and heat to taste, and continue to cook gently until you achieve the texture you prefer. Add more water if it becomes too thick for your liking.

9. Serve in a bowl with a dollop of hot pickle (this one is a standard Patak’s Hot Lime Pickle) or sweet chutney* and some chopped coriander if desired.

*My absolute favourite chutney in the world, first given me by our friend Caro, is this Roasted Cherry Chutney made by a New Zealand company called Provisions of Central Otago. Senor and I became so addicted to it that when we finished the jar Caro brought us back from across the ditch, and I learned my Twitter buddy and food fiend @Reemski was going to NZ, I basically begged her to bring some back for me. She doubled the joy by also bringing their Roasted Nectarine Chutney – lordy me, what a feast.  If anyone hears of a local stockist for this stuff, let me know! Otherwise next time I shall be biting the bullet and buying over $50 worth from their website (if they ship to Oz – not sure). 


  1. I have to say that I love, love, love dahl. And my moong dahl is definitely my most favourite base. I always use a Madhur recipe as the starting point, but there are lots of different ways to vary by tweaking the spices in the tarka etc. I also like sneaking some veg in, usually chopped fresh tomato and some spinach, but also like adding in a tray of oven baked eggplant every now and then. Yum, yum.

    I’m definitely *not* a purist, about any type of cooking – as long as it tastes good I’m happy.

  2. hi Charlotte, I made this this eve with another different curry, greatly helped by my friends ten yr old son. We had a great time cooking both dishes in tandem plus another pot of mince and fatties for my toddler. Everyone loved their dinner immensely AND we have left overs! Thanks for a top recipe

  3. Oops that is tatties not fatties although we maybe do love food a bit too much in this family!

  4. SO glad you liked the chutney.I was at the Cheese Factory in Robertson the other day after interviewing Ben Quilty and to my surprise they stocked some of the Provisions range and said they could order the cherry chutney in, so that’s one source.

  5. Great to know you are such dahl fans – Kathryn your eggplant sounds like a cracking addition. Annie, I am very intrigued by your cookery pal; must find out more.

    Caro, the chutney is, as you know, out of this world. Or at least out of this country. If I’m ever driving through Robertson though, I know where to go. But I think maybe a bulk online order from the source for howtoshuckanoyster pals might be the go – aybody wish to join?

  6. I made this last night. Amazing. I ended up leaving it quite thick and spooning it over rice with plenty of chili, coriander and lime pickle. I’d have thrown a dollop of yoghurt on the top too if I’d had it.
    Thanks for the recipe, Charlotte. A keeper.

  7. […] again, so here is a perfect wintery desk-side lunch recipe from Charlotte Wood-no-relation for spinach dahl. Charlotte’s blog ‘How to shuck an oyster’ is compulsory reading for anyone […]

  8. I learnt to cook dahl nearly 30 years ago from a recipe I found in the Hare Krishna cookbook they used to sell for a couple of dollars. I found I preferred mung beans to lentils. And we used zucchini and tomatoes to flesh it out. (Made for a very cheap and nutritious meal during student days).

    • Thanks Nici – like the idea of mung beans, must try. Luckily now I have my mate Steph’s new beetroot & cherry chutney to try for this – she’s doing an incredible range of Clifford Smith Handmade preserves & chutneys, check her out on FB if you can. Also like the idea of zukes for bulking, will try that too, Thanks! x

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