Incredible Authentic Split Pea Dhal (Heirloom Recipe, Customizable)

April 2, 2020
I'm sharing with you one of my most popular recipes, which (I'll be honest) has been the cause of a LOT of food envy over the years. I developed this using the skills and process I learned from a university friend many years ago, whose curry-making skills were epic (handed down from her grandma). And now I'm sharing it with you! Use this powerful recipe wisely, dumplings!

I've included easy-to-follow hints and tips on how to balance the spices, seasoning and other flavors, to help those of you who might be new to curry-making, so that you can make an authentic-tasting, mouth-watering dhal, the very first time you try!

One of my favorite things about this recipe is the fact that it's completely adaptable to whatever you have in your cupboard/fridge, which makes it the perfect lockdown dish, for when you're scratching your head for food ideas. At its most basic, all it requires is split yellow peas (or you could use any dried pulses you have in the back of your cupboard—but the texture may be a bit different), chili, garlic, and ginger (the holy trinity of aromatics) or any combo of the three, onions, herbs, and spices. At its most complex, you can add squash, potatoes, green beans, cavolo nero (aka Tuscan kale)—the only limitation is your imagination (and the contents of your kitchen!). But however you make it, this is designed to be super simple, nourishing, feel-good food, with only a handful of ingredients needed. The recipe itself will make an incredibly tasty dhal, but it's really more of a framework for those new to curry-making, to get used to the process of curry-making. Once learned, you can easily adapt this to whatever ingredients you have, and will be able to make curries out of pretty much any ingredient you like! The more you practice your tasting/flavor adjusting skills, the easier it gets, and the better your curries will get.

This recipe can be served with any side of your choice: rice, couscous, quinoa, flatbread, jacket potato or baked sweet potato, on toast—you name it! It always tastes better after a night in the refrigerator, and likewise, if you freeze it (almost indefinitely) it tastes amazing—as though the spices have developed and gotten to know each other—it just works even better.

But if you can't wait that long (and who can?!) it's delicious served up immediately, with sides, a dollop of vegan yogurt and maybe a few mint leaves chopped and mixed in, or some mango chutney if you have any at the back of your fridge. Go wild!
dhal recipe

Incredible Authentic Split Pea Dhal (Heirloom Recipe, Customizable)

Recipe Type: Hearty Entrees
utensils YIELDS 4 servings
herb graphic for recipe card
  • 1 cup Split Yellow Peas (soaked overnight in plenty of cold water)
  • 1 Large onion chopped finely/half chopped finely and half chopped chunkily, for a bit more robust a texture
  • 4 Bay leaves
  • 3-4 Garlic cloves, finely chopped or crushed
  • 1/2 - 1 (to taste) Chili, finely chopped (seeds removed if you don't like it too spicy)
  • A 1-inch piece Root ginger, peeled and grated (or chopped finely)
  • 1 cube / 1 tablespoon Vegan stock cube / vegan bouillon powder
  • Spray to cover the base of the frying pan generously, or 1 tbsp of oil Low-calorie oil spray, or rapeseed oil/olive oil
  • Other vegetables as desired (4 chopped chestnut mushrooms, 2 sliced carrots, 5 baby potatoes, 1/2 a squash)
  • 2 tsp Cumin seeds
  • 2 tsp Black mustard seeds
  • 1 tsp Coriander seeds
  • 1 tsp Fenugreek seeds
  • 1 piece Cinnamon stick / cassia bark
  • 2 Black Cardamoms
  • 3 Star Anise
  • 4 Cloves
  • 5 Green Cardamoms
  • 2 heaped teaspoons (or to taste) Turmeric
  • 1 tbsp (or to taste) Garam Masala
  • 2 tsp Smoked paprika (sweet or hot are both fine)
  • 1/2 - 1 Unwaxed lemon juice and zest, or finely chopped preserved lemon (pips removed, skin left on)
  • To taste Salt and Pepper
  • A pinch - 1 teaspoon (to taste) Sugar/Jaggery/Agave/Sweetener of choice
  • 2 handfuls Fresh spinach (optional)
  • 1-2 handfuls Fresh (or frozen) parsley/coriander leaf, chopped
        graphic for recipe card


1. Drain the split peas, rinse well & place in a large pan, covering with plenty of water.

2. Do not add salt.

3. Heat until boiling, and leave to boil rapidly for 10 minutes. Skim off any foam which may come to the surface (not overly important if you miss this, but it makes the pan a lot easier to wash, and helps prevent it from boiling over).

4. Turn down the heat to low/medium, add bay leaves and simmer, partially covered, for 1-2 hours (or according to packet instructions) until softened and starting to break down slightly.

5. In the meantime, cover the base of a large frying pan with low-calorie oil spray (or a good splash of mild cooking vegetable oil). Add the onions and sweat on a gentle heat, stirring regularly, and adding splashes of water if it starts to overheat.

6. When the onion starts to soften/turn translucent or golden, add the garlic, chilli and ginger, and stir well to combine. It should start to smell lovely and aromatic at this stage, as the oils of these fragrant fresh ingredients are drawn out and all mix together with the onions.

7. After a couple of minutes, add the seeds and whole spices (all of them other than turmeric, paprika and garam masala), and gently heat, stirring occasionally, until some of the mustard seeds start to pop, or until the spices start to smell really good.

8. At this stage, add any hard raw chopped vegetables you’re using (such as carrot, potato and/or pumpkin or squash), and throw in the rest of the spices (as the ground spices will burn if fried for too long) you’re using, stirring well.

9. Allow the mixture to heat up for a few moments, stirring continuously. Add a little hot water (from the split peas, if they’re cooked at this stage, or from the kettle) and stir/firmly scrape everything off the bottom of the pan with the wooden spoon to deglaze, and make a paste with all the ingredients.

10. Take the frying pan off the heat, and put aside.

11. Once the split peas are cooked, add the stock/bouillon cube, & stir well.

12. Add the contents of the frying pan to the pot of cooked split peas, using some of the split pea liquor to remove any stubborn spices staying in the bottom of the pan.

13. Add any additional veggies you’re using (other than spinach), and stir through.

14. Partially cover the pan with the lid, and leave to cook, checking & stirring regularly, to avoid the peas sticking to the bottom of the pan. Be careful of splashes – the dhal tends to bubble up like molten turmeric-staining lava!

15. After around a half hour/hour later or when the texture is lovely and thick, and the vegetables are all properly cooked through, taste the dhal. If you’re using robust leaves like kale or cabbage, or more delicate veg like sugar snap peas, chopped French beans or okra, now’s the time to chuck them into the pot, so that they’ll cook through before serving, but still have a lovely crunchy bite.

16. Grate in the zest of the lemon directly into the pan (to collect all those awesome fragrant essential oils) and squeeze in the juice, then stir through. Or if you’re using the chopped preserved lemon alternative, stir it through – skin and all. Bear in mind that you won’t need to add as much salt if using preserved lemon, as they tend to be preserved in brine.

17. Season with salt & pepper, taste again, and add a small pinch of sugar (jaggery is divine, if you happen to have some in, but agave syrup or even a little regular sugar or sweetener will do the job very nicely). This brings out the savory flavors and spices – if you’ve used lots of sweet veggies, you may not need to add as much, or you might choose to omit this altogether – but a little really does make all the difference.

18. Keep tasting, and adjusting the seasoning until it tastes really delicious. Don’t be afraid to chuck in some herbs or more spices at this stage if it needs it – think about the balance of flavours – earthy warming bitter notes from the turmeric, pepper, sweet fragrant notes from the cassia bark or cinnamon stick, mustard seeds and nutmeg, savory notes from herbs, bay leaves, garlic, flavor definition from salt & sugar, and lifting top notes from the cardamom pod, lemon, parsley etc. With practice you’ll be able to taste base notes, middle notes and top notes, and balance them to make a delicious & interesting flavour journey for your palate with every mouthful!

19. Before serving, remove the bay leaves, cinnamon/cassia, black cardamom and any other whole spices you can locate, and squeeze the seeds out of the green cardamom pods into the dish (using the back of a spoon, as the pod will be pretty soft by now). Give it a last proper stir, to distribute the flavours.

20. Add the spinach (if using) to wilt, and fresh parsley/coriander leaf, and stir through.

Serve with your favorite side(s).

Bon appetit!

Also by Ema: Made from Scratch Vegan Bechamel Sauce

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Photo: Ema Melanaphy

Ema Melanaphy is an ex-Civil Servant Reiki practitioner and Shiatsu student, a super proud auntie of 6 niblings, a multipotentialite, passionate vegan, yoga enthusiast and unabashed geek girl. She loves inventing new recipes and veganising the heck out of everything, experimenting with hair colours, learning languages (learning in general!) exploring the world, evolving, and connecting with nature. She posts on Instagram at @reikiema, and blogs on her website


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