Pure comfort food – brown rice is cooked with gentle spices, then topped with a chunky, creamy, earthy lentil and mushroom dal. The final deliciousness is a drizzle of spiced oil loaded with flavor and crunch. The lentils and rice provide good vegetarian protein – a great dish if you’re trying to go meatless a few nights a week.
This simple combination is a real winner.
A bowl of creamy dal served with flatbreads or rice is a staple and important part of South Asian cuisine. The word dal (also spelled daal) means split dried pulses that don’t need to be soaked before cooking (like lentils, peas, and beans). It can also mean a soup or stew prepared from these pulses. And that is where the comfort food comes in. When combined with spices and aromatics and simmered until they break down into a tender, silky sauce, split red lentils become gorgeously creamy. Cook them with a big pile of chopped mushrooms and you’ve got a delightful comination of nubbly bits in a smooth and rich dal.
Spoon the mushroom dal over a steaming mound of subtly spiced, nutty brown rice and top it off with a golden drizzle of aromatic oil and crunchy pops of toasted seeds . . . well now it’s just a plate of blissful comfort. Plus it’s a healthy dish loaded with fiber, protein, and nutrients. Whenever you combine a grain with a legume (rice and beans), together they contain all nine essential amino acids to form a complete protein. This dish becomes an easy and delicious way to add a meatless meal to your weekly rotation.
And the spiced seed oil adds a delightful finishing touch.
What is Tarka?
This is a common way in South Asian cooking to add a blast of flavour and texture to a finished dish. Oil is heated with whole spices and spooned onto the dal. It can go by many different names in different parts of India and South Asia. Just to name a few I found in my research: tarka, tadka, chhonk, chownk, chaunk, vagar, vagarne, baghaar, oggarane. Whatever you call it, this fun finale to our mushroom dal adds amazing zest and an extra layer of flavour.
All you do is heat up a generous splash of oil and add a few spoonfuls of whole seeds to roast until they just start to pop – this brings out their essential oils, intensifies their flavour, and makes them extra crunchy. I also toss in a bit of salt and powdered turmeric for colour. Taking the few minutes you’ll need to make the tarka is definitely worth it – you’ll elevate your dal to a whole new level of deliciousness and fun.
Got Mushrooms? Make Mushroom Dal!
Whether you’ve just got a big pile of common white button mushrooms, or an assortment of different exotic mushrooms, like the ones below that inspired me one day when shopping in the Asian market, you can make up a delicious batch of mushroom dal.
Chop up a mound of whatever mushroom varieties you have. You should have about 4 cups in total, once chopped – but a few more or less won’t matter.
You’ll fry up some onion, garlic, and spices, then add the mushrooms, red lentils, and water. Let the whole thing simmer for 45 minutes until the lentils have completely broken down and become silky. You’ll have a potful of creamy golden purée that’s nubbly with mushroom bits and loaded with rich mushroom flavour.
Cook up some healthy brown rice with aromatic spices to infuse it with their subtle exotic aroma.
Then shortly before the dal is done, heat up a splash of oil in a small saucepan and sizzle a handful of seeds and spices for the tarka to add a delightful richness with crunchy pops of flavour to your mushroom dal and rice dish.
Drizzle this tarka over the creamy mushroom dal and transform it into something fun and magical.
The mushrooms add texture and chewiness. The red lentils cook down to silky softness. The toasted seed oil adds unctuousness and little explosions of flavour.
Forkful after forkful of deliciousness.
Fill yourself a bowl of rice, dal, and tarka, wrap yourself in your ratty old comfy sweater, settle into your favourite chair with a mug of tea, and turn on your favourite tunes. This is the kind of dish it’s okay to slurp from a bowl on your lap every now and then. You deserve it.
* * * * *
Mushroom Dal with Brown Rice & Tarka
- *Vegetarian, Vegan if coconut oil is used as cooking fat
for the rice:
- 1¼ cups (250gms) brown rice
- 1 tablespoon ghee or coconut oil
- 4 or 5 cardamom pods
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 cinnamon stick 3 inches
- ½ teaspoon fine sea salt
- 2 cups (480ml) water
for the mushroom dal:
- 12 oz (350gms) button mushrooms or mixed mushrooms (4 cups chopped)
- 2 tablespoons ghee or coconut oil
- 1 medium onion, finely chopped (1 cup)
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 tablespoon curry powder, mild or medium or garam masala
- ½ teaspoon turmeric
- ¼ teaspoon dried red pepper flakes
- 1 cup (175gms) red lentils
- 3 cups (720mls) water
- 1 teaspoon salt
- grinding of black pepper
for the tarka/spiced oil:
- 2 tablespoons ghee or coconut oil
- 1 teaspoon whole cumin seeds
- 1 teaspoon whole coriander seeds
- 1 teaspoon whole mustard seeds
- ½ teaspoon ground turmeric
- pinch of fine sea salt
- Start the brown rice cooking first, since it takes long to cook. Rinse the rice several times, then drain it well. Put the ghee or coconut oil into the pot you will cook the rice in and heat it over medium-high heat. Add the drained rice and cook it, stirring constantly, until it is dry and heated. Crush the cardamom pods with the bottom of a glass and remove the little black seeds. Add them to the rice (discard the outer pods). Add the bay leaf, cinnamon stick, salt, and water. Bring to a boil, then stir the rice to loosen any that is stuck to the bottom. Reduce the heat to low, cover the pot with a lid, and let the rice simmer for 45 minutes undisturbed. When the time is up, turn off the heat and leave the lid on so the rice can steam and stay warm until it is time to serve it. Remove the cinnamon stick and bay leaf and fluff up the rice before serving.
- Make the dal: Thinly slice 4 or 5 of the smallest button mushrooms. Chop the rest into pea-sized pieces. Set them aside.
- In a small dutch oven or heavy bottomed saucepan, heat the ghee or coconut oil over medium high heat. Add the chopped onion and cook for 2 to 3 minutes, until the pieces just start to get translucent. Add the garlic, curry powder, turmeric, and red pepper flakes and cook for 2 to 3 more minutes. Then add the chopped and sliced mushrooms. Cook for 5 minutes.
- Add the red lentils, water, salt, and pepper. Bring everything to a simmer, stir, then cover the pot and let it simmer for 40 to 45 minutes. Lift the lid and stir occasionally. Cook until the lentils are soft and the dal is a creamy thick texture. If you like your dal looser, add a bit more water, if you like it thicker, cook it for a few more minutes uncovered.
- About 5 minutes before the dal is done, prepare the tarka: In a small heavy skillet or pot, melt the ghee or coconut oil over medium-high heat. When it is rippling, add the cumin seeds, coriander seeds, and mustard seeds. Cook until you can hear the seeds starting to pop. (A mesh splatter screen on top helps contain them, or a lid set loosely to the side over the skillet.) Shake the skillet and let the seeds pop for about 5 seconds, then immediately remove it from the heat. Stir in the turmeric and salt. Scrape the seeded oil into a small serving bowl.
- When the mushroom dal is done, drizzle a little of the spice oil over the dal in the serving dish, and serve the rest for diners to drizzle over their individual servings on their plates. Serve the mushroom dal with the brown rice and the spiced oil.
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