This daal palak recipe is a staple in our household. We make it once if not twice every week and it never gets old. Growing up I loved daal and I could eat it with rice, roti, sliced bread or even as a soup on its own. Mum would sneak spinach into the daal, so that unknowingly I would be consuming my five a day. It is one of those “must-have” recipes that comes together quickly, perfect for a weeknight meal or when you need a flavorful vegetarian curry that can feed a crowd in no time.
There are two parts to this recipe: cooking the daal palak and making the tadka. The lentils are cooked until softened, anywhere between 20 to 30 minutes. After that we cook it further with the spinach and a few spices. The tadka (whole spices bloomed in ghee) is what brings life into this curry, as it wakes up all the spices adding aromatic appeal to the dish.
Choosing Your Lentils (Daal)
Traditionally the recipe calls for toor or tuvar daal (also called pigeon pea lentils).Here I have used moong daal (also known as split mung beans or green gram), but you can use red lentils to make this curry.
Whichever daal you use, make sure to start cooking the daal in room temperature water, without salt. This allows the lentils to cook until soft without having any graininess.
Fresh or Frozen Spinach?
I used fresh baby spinach to make this recipe. You can also use mature fresh spinach with long stems. I would cut the stems before adding it to the daal, as it can be stringy once it’s cooked.
You don’t have to use fresh spinach, though. If you are using frozen spinach I would recommend adding it frozen into the daal and letting it thaw as the daal cooks. It will release a little water but you can cook it over high heat for a couple of minutes more to thicken it up.
Ghee Vs. Butter
Ghee is a pantry essential in Indian cuisine and it does provide the best flavor, but you could use regular butter to make the tadka. We have also used oil to make the tadka but my preference has to be butter.
Help! I Don’t Have Kashmiri Chili Powder!
Kashmiri chili powder is ground red Kashmiri chiles. They originally came from Kashmir in North India but today they are grown in various states all over India. This spice is all about color, heat and flavor. It has a deep red color and smoky and earthy flavor. The spice level is mild.
As a substitute, you can use cayenne pepper and smoked paprika (1/4 teaspoon of each), which adds an adequate amount of heat to the curry. Or for a slightly spicier daal, you can use simply 1/2 teaspoon of cayenne pepper. As with any chili, you can reduce or increase this amount to your palette. Always add less, stir it well, and taste before you increase the amount. The heat can creep up on you in a lentil curry, I speak from eye-watering experience.
Take Time for the Tadka
Without the tadka added at the end, the daal palak would be bland and lifeless. The tadka is made with a combination of ground and whole spices that brings out all the flavors once heated in the fat (in this case, ghee), and when added to the daal it compliments the overall taste and appearance as well.
Make It a Meal
There is no wrong way to serve this daal palak. You can serve it with hot homemade rotis, steamed rice, or bread. I love serving it with pickled onions, yogurt, papad, and rice to make it a complete meal.
Make the pickled onions:
In a small bowl add the sliced onions, lime juice and salt. Using your hands, mix it well and let it marinate for 30 minutes while you make the rest of the recipe.
Cook the lentils:
In a medium stock pot add the lentils and 3 cups of room temperature water. Bring to a boil over high heat.
Skim and discard foam that may gather on the top. Reduce the heat and simmer uncovered until soft, approximately 20-30 minutes. Add more water if you need to, and stir the pot if you’re worried the lentils are sticking to the bottom of the pot as they get softer (I usually don’t find this necessary).
Add the spices to the lentils:
Once the lentils are cooked through, add the ginger garlic paste and turmeric and stir. Cook for 1 minute on low heat.
Add the spinach:
Add the spinach and cilantro and cook for 3-5 minutes on low heat until the spinach wilts and the daal is thicker.
Take the pot off the heat and season with salt and lime juice.
Make the tadka:
In a small sauté pan over low to medium low heat, add the ghee, cumin seeds, and red chiles.
Once it is sizzling, add the Kashmiri chili powder and ground cumin and stir briefly.
Add tadka to the daal:
Pour a little more than half the tadka into the pot with the daal, reserving the rest to be spooned over after serving.
Divide the daal palak between serving bowls (over rice, if you’d like). Top with the pickled onions, papad, yogurt, and add more tadka if you want more heat.
Store the leftovers in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 4 days. Keep the leftover pickled onions on their own in a glass jar in the fridge for 1 day.
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