How to make the perfect tempered dhal

O Tama Carey, of Lankan Filling Station, explains how to add layers of flavour to this South Asian staple.

By O Tama Carey
  • 15 mins preparation
  • 45 mins cooking
  • Serves 4
  • Print
Tempered dhal
Dhal is a thing of beauty. It's delicious and healthy, and can be eaten at any time of the day as part of a meal, or simply by itself.
Tempering is a technique used in South Asian cooking to add extra flavour: spices and other ingredients, such as chilli, onion and curry leaves, are dry-roasted or fried at the start of cooking, or are cooked separately and added to a dish at the end. The traditional method is to cook the lentils with minimal ingredients and then temper; tempering first, however, is less fuss, and only one pan is needed. For a more luxurious version, temper twice, as we've done for this recipe.
Step 1 Photo: Alicia Taylor
Step 2 Photo: Alicia Taylor
Step 2: Add coconut milk Photo: Alicia Taylor
Step 3 Photo: Alicia Taylor

How to dial up your dhal

  • This dhal can be made with coconut oil, ghee, or both.
  • Dhal can be prepared with any lentil, with wildly different finished products (chana lentils, for example, result in quite a textured dhal). Cooking time and the amount of liquid needed will vary.
  • In Sri Lanka, dhal is usually just one in an array of dishes that make up a meal alongside curry, rice, mallung and sambols, so it's often simply flavoured. If you do want to ramp up the flavour, fennel, cumin or coriander seeds can be added to the temper.
  • This recipe can be thinned down with water or coconut milk according to taste; a thinner dhal with boiled eggs stirred through, and served with pol roti and pol sambol, makes a great breakfast dish.


  • 350 gm (2¾ cups) dried red split lentils, rinsed
  • 250 ml (1 cup) coconut milk
  • Steamed rice, to serve
First temper
  • 50 gm coconut oil
  • 1½ onions, diced
  • 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 10 gm ginger, finely chopped
  • 1 fresh curry leaf sprig, leaves picked
  • 1 tsp yellow mustard seeds
  • 1 tsp ground turmeric
  • 1 cinnamon quill
  • 1 pandan leaf (see note), cut into 3cm pieces
  • 1 lemongrass stalk, white part only, bruised
Second temper
  • 80 gm ghee
  • 1 small onion, thinly sliced
  • 1 large red chilli (seeds optional), thinly sliced
  • ¼ cup (loosely packed) fresh curry leaves
  • 1 tsp yellow mustard seeds


  • 1
    For first temper, heat oil in a wok over low heat until melted and starting to shimmer. Add onion, garlic, ginger and curry leaves and fry, stirring occasionally, until onion is soft (5-7 minutes). Add spices and stir until seeds start to pop and spices start to catch (1-2 minutes). Add pandan and lemongrass and stir to combine.
  • 2
    Add lentils, season to taste, and stir to coat. Add coconut milk with 750ml water and simmer, stirring occasionally, until lentils start to fall apart (10-15 minutes).
  • 3
    Meanwhile, for second temper, heat ghee in a separate wok or large saucepan over high heat until shimmering. Add remaining ingredients and stir-fry until onion is starting to caramelise (15-20 minutes). Stir temper through lentils, season to taste and serve with rice.


Fresh and frozen pandan leaves are available from select Asian supermarkets.