• Ragini Dey shares how to make your dal exceptional. (Supplied)Source: Supplied
Adelaide-based chef and cookbook author Ragini Dey has made dal on average four times a week since she was a teenager in New Delhi.
Jennifer Wong

10 Nov 2021 - 10:46 AM  UPDATED 11 Nov 2021 - 12:00 PM

One of Ragini Dey's earliest memories of dal involves being with her cousins cooking around the campfire underneath the lychee trees in her grandparents' orchards.

But it would be some years later before Dey began to cook dal herself. 

As a young cook, she much preferred the exoticism of the recipes in her mother's collection of Western cookbooks. She'd make scones and French cakes. "That was much more exciting to me," she says with a laugh. 

Once she'd reached her teens, Dey began to spend more time in the kitchen with her father. He'd grown up spending hours in the kitchen, observing his mother's ambitious cooking feats such as making fish in aspic in the style of French chef Auguste Escoffier.

"My grandmother never taught him anything, never told him anything. He just observed," says Dey. "But from her, he learned how to make smoked fish and ham, which is not a big deal here, but was a big deal in winter in Delhi."

"He was a man who loved to add a twist to everything, so he would add vegetables to dal."

Dey's father would come home from his white-collar job in the city, change out of his suit and head into the kitchen, where he'd give her small tasks, like stirring the pot.

From him, Dey inherited a love for giving dals twists. "He was a man who loved to add a twist to everything, so he would add vegetables to dal, he would add lamb to dal."

She also learned other lessons from him, which she still applies to this day.

Lentils: to soak or not to soak?

If you're using whole lentils (that is, lentils that aren't split), then you need to soak them overnight or for eight hours until they're soft. 

Whole lentils will not soften without soaking, so if you're in a hurry, use split lentils.

Whole v split

Whole lentils with the skin on are healthier and offer more texture. 

If you're feeding babies or you're older and have digestive problems, always use split lentils because they're easier to digest.

Don't cook with both whole and split lentils in the same dal, because they have different cooking times.

When to add salt and acid

Salt and acid slow down the cooking of dal, so don't add them until the lentils are soft.

Pressure cookers are handy if you're short on time

Dal with yellow and red lentils take about 20 to 30 minutes to cook, but with a pressure cooker, it can take as little as 10 minutes.

Dal with whole lentils can take as little as 15 to 20 minutes to cook with a pressure cooker, but you'll still need to soak the lentils overnight or for eight hours before you cook them.

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The consistency of dal

This is a tricky topic, says Dey, because everyone has their own theory or preference.

To generalise, dals in the south of India are runnier, because they're usually eaten with rice. Whereas in the north, they are thicker because they're usually eaten with bread.

Tadka dal

For more fragrance, why not try barbecue?

Dey's dad grew up in Calcutta cooking with wood fire, which gave dals a distinct aroma.

In their home in Delhi, he loved putting a pot of dal on the barbecue with wood chips or charcoal for a smoky scent.


Dey's son often complains about her cooking: "Why do you make it different every time?" But like her father, Dey thinks experimenting is one of the great joys of cooking.

One version that she's been thinking about recently involves fish heads and green mangoes.  

"I was thinking yesterday about green mangoes being in season, and green mangoes and fish heads are fantastic company. You fry the fish heads in turmeric and mustard oil, so you get a really nice flavour there," says Dey. 

To make a fish head dal with the recipe below, add the fried fish head and peeled and chopped green mango to the lentils just before you add four cups of water. 


'The Mostest' is an SBS Food column that sees comedian and food enthusiast Jennifer Wong be your guide. Read as she goes searching to uncover who we are as cooks and who we are as eaters. Expect history, incredible tips, must-make recipes and anecdotes all surrounded by food. Love the story? Follow the author here: Twitter @wojennifer, Facebook @jenniferwongcomedian, Instagram @jenniferwongcomedian.


Roasted dal with vegetables

Chef and cookbook author Ragini Dey loves the versatility of a simple, comforting dal. Here, she shares a recipe that'll work with the veggies you have in your fridge.

Serves 4 


  • 225 g split red lentils or yellow mung dal
  • 1 green chilli, split
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2 whole cloves
  • 2 whole black peppercorns
  • 2 green cardamom
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 60 ml ghee
  • 1 tsp turmeric powder
  • Salt to taste
  • 1 tsp sugar (optional)
  • 1 tbsp ginger paste
  • ½ cup green peas
  • ½ cup cauliflower, cut into florets
  • ½ cup carrots, diced
  • ½ cup pumpkin, diced (optional)


  • 30 ml ghee
  • 1 tsp panch phoron Indian five spice (black and yellow mustard seeds, nigella, cumin, fenugreek seeds)
  • 2 tbsp chopped coriander


  1. In a large saucepan, dry roast the lentil of your choice on medium heat until a very light brown.
  2. Remove and keep aside.
  3. In the same pan, add ghee and heat it until smoking.
  4. Add the whole spices and green chilli.
  5. Add the remaining ingredients (except the tempering ingredients and salt) with 4 cups of water. Cook uncovered on medium heat until lentils and vegetables are soft.
  6. Season with salt to taste.
  7. In a separate pan, add remaining ghee and tempering ingredients, and heat for 1 minute.
  8. Pour on top of the cooked lentils and serve with steamed rice or Indian bread.

Photographs by Ragini Dey.

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