Diwali

Curried Lentils with Coconut Milk

September 26, 2016
4.5 Stars
Photo by Alexandra Stafford
Author Notes

Julia Turshen describes dried spices as “sleeping in the cupboard,” needing a hit of hot oil to "wake up” and “make themselves known.” In her curried lentil dish from Small Victories, the spices—a mix of cumin seed, coriander, and turmeric—rouse from their slumber for a full 10 minutes, entering the pan in step one right along with the minced garlic, shallot, and ginger.

Many recipes call for “blooming” spices in oil, but few for quite this long. In a chili, braise, or other slow-cooked dish, a one- to two-minute blooming period may be fine. But in this dish, which comes together in 30 minutes, a longer period allows the spices to infuse the oil and meld into the aromatics before the liquids (a mix of equal parts coconut milk and water) enter the equation. In the end, the lentils taste vibrant, earthy, and deeply curried, with a texture resembling a thick soup or dal, the coconut milk lending body and a slight richness.

This simple method—the slow warming of spices plus a short simmer in liquid—could be used with any number of quick-cooking grains such as quinoa, bulgur, pearled farro, or wheat berries, as well as with cooked chickpeas or beans to create a comforting, satisfying stew-like dish. (Note: The amount of liquid will vary depending on the grain or legume being used.)

Make this dish when the cupboards feel bare—when you need to create, as Julia says, “something from nothing.” Its virtues could be summarized as healthful, cheap, and easy, but there are others worth highlighting:

- Many curries or curry-like dishes call for a daunting number of ingredients, but in this one, the seasonings are minimal: a few dried spices (coriander, turmeric, and cumin seeds) and a few aromatics (ginger, garlic, shallot or onion).

- Julia, expert recipe writer that she is, doesn’t simply say, “Salt to taste.” She specifies 2 teaspoons—so helpful!—then suggests seasoning to taste before serving. This was spot on.

- After you dump the can of coconut milk into the pot, you use the empty can to measure an equal amount of water. How nice not to have to reach for another measure?

- Julia offers two simple spin-offs, both of which sound appealing:

For a vegetable or chicken curry, substitute a pound of chopped vegetables (cauliflower, carrots, potatoes, etc.) or cubed chicken for the lentils, then follow the recipe the same.

For a Thai-style curry, omit the cumin and add a minced chile along with the garlic and ginger. Add cilantro stems along with the coconut milk (but discard them before serving) and finish the dish with a splash of fish sauce. Serve with lime, cilantro leaves, and Sriracha.

The dish could be vegan if you leave out the yogurt. Naan is also really nice on the side here.

Re lentils: I like to use a mix of French green lentils and red split lentils. It's faster if you use solely the red split lentils, but I love the texture offered by the French green ones when they're part of the mix. It's completely delicious both ways, so use what you have. Do plan a little bit more ahead if you use the French green lentils — they may take as long as 45 minutes to cook if not longer. —Alexandra Stafford

  • Prep time 10 minutes
  • Cook time 55 minutes
  • Serves 4
Ingredients
  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon minced peeled fresh ginger
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 shallot or small onion, minced
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1 teaspoon cumin seeds or ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon ground turmeric
  • 1 cup (180 g) split red lentils or other (see notes above)
  • 1 13.5-ounce (398-ml) can full-fat unsweetened coconut milk
  • kosher salt
  • Cooked basmati rice, plain yogurt, chopped fresh cilantro, and naan for serving
In This Recipe
Directions
  1. In a large saucepan over medium heat, warm the olive oil. Add the ginger, garlic, shallot (or onion), coriander, cumin, and turmeric and cook, stirring now and then, until the vegetables are softened and the spices are very fragrant, about 10 minutes.
  2. Add the lentils, coconut milk, and 1 to 2 teaspoons kosher salt (Note: if you are sensitive to salt or using table salt or even Morton's kosher salt, which is saltier than Diamond Crystal kosher salt, start with 1 teaspoon, then add more to taste—I use Diamond Crystal and so typically use 2, but use your judgement), then fill the empty coconut-milk can with water and add it to the saucepan. It will look like a lot of liquid, but the lentils will absorb it as they cook. Stir everything together, turn the heat to high, and bring the mixture to a boil. Turn the heat to low and let the lentils simmer, stirring now and then, until they’re completely soft, about 20 minutes. Season to taste with salt. (Note: If you're using those French green lentils, you will need to cook this longer, 30 to 45 minutes. Just keep tasting to see when the lentils are cooked through. You may or may not need to add more water.)
  3. Serve the lentils hot over rice. Top each serving with a spoonful of yogurt and a sprinkle of cilantro. A side of naan is nice, too.

See what other Food52ers are saying.

  • Kristin Anderson
    Kristin Anderson
  • Martin
    Martin
  • Adriana Giannini
    Adriana Giannini
  • Shari Broder
    Shari Broder
  • Diane
    Diane
I write the blog alexandra's kitchen, a place for mostly simple, sometimes fussy, and always seasonal recipes. My cookbook, Bread Toast Crumbs is available everywhere books are sold.

149 Reviews

Kristin A. January 16, 2022
We've been making this recipe at my house for years -- we LOVE it! As others have said, don't skip the yogurt, and naan makes an amazing side. We do usually cover the lentils for part of the cooking time, since they seem to not cook well or evenly when we leave the pot uncovered.
 
Martin July 28, 2021
So I've never made a single recipe with lentils, mostly cause my mom was not a particularly skilled cook and my introduction to lentils was just boiling them. However, I've always felt like they had some potential. I happened by this recipe and thought it sounded yummy. I really enjoyed and there were no leftovers. So much so that I made them thr next day, multiplying it by 1.5 cause there wasn't enough. We are 2 adults and 2 kids, so ya, I'd say genius recipe. These are the recipes that keep me coming back to this website. Thank you so much for sharing and indirectly helping me enjoy my meals with my kids!
 
Adriana G. August 22, 2020
So simple and yummy! I soaked my green lentils overnight so the cooking time was more like 20 mins. This will definitely be my go to lentil curry recipe.
 
FreezePeach July 10, 2020
Loved this, followed recipe exactly and it was delicious. Going to be a staple for us.
 
Shari B. September 29, 2019
So simple and delicious! We love and and have served it to guests, who wanted the recipe.
 
Diane August 21, 2019
This recipe created the most delicious dish. One day I topped it with Mango/Peach yogurt because ran out of plain Greek yogurt and the coconut taste blending with the mango/peach was amazing. I served it over brown rice and quinoa. This is definitely a favorite of mine!
 
Deborah March 8, 2019
Very tasty! And easy. I enjoyed making it and serving it as well!
 
Heidi June 14, 2018
This is a lifesaver recipe for when I haven’t a dinner plan. It can be simmering in less than 10 minutes, and by the time my rice cooker has popped it’s ready. Don’t skip the yogurt! Leftovers topped with extra rice make easy grab and heat meals, and it freezes superbly.
 
Jon L. March 9, 2018
trying it tonite...
 
Lydia B. March 8, 2018
What kind of bread is that on the picture?
Thank you in advance
 
Author Comment
Alexandra S. March 8, 2018
Hi! It's just that Stonefire naan brand found at most grocery stores. I think it's really really good. I bread the larger naans into pieces and pop them in the toaster to heat. The brand also offers "mini" versions that are perfect for the toaster.
 
Diane September 23, 2019
It looks like Naan. I buy it frozen and heat as I need it.
 
Ahu Y. February 15, 2018
Thanks for the recipe. I have done this so many times and everyone who has tasted loves it! Just a quick question, does it turn out as delicious if it's made with light coconut milk?
 
Author Comment
Alexandra S. February 20, 2018
I imagine that would be just fine :)
 
mbzr February 20, 2018
It is better with full fat (in my experience), but light is ok. I now double the recipe and use one can full fat coconut milk, and one can light. It freezes well, so it's worth it to me to double it.
 
Diane September 23, 2019
Yes it's still very good.
 
john January 3, 2018
Do you recommend making this
in a pressure cooker? Can yellow levels be used instead of orange and green?
 
Author Comment
Alexandra S. February 20, 2018
I imagine it would do well in a pressure cooker. And yes re yellow in place of orange — I like the green ones because they hold their shape and offer a bit of texture while the others dissolve to mush, but if you don't mind mush, you can use all yellow.
 
Nick October 14, 2017
A good quick meal. I sautéed the onions before garlic, as garlic cooks faster. After a couple minutes, added the garlic and spices. Added Cayenne Pepper as well and even some Tikka Masala. Any relative spices add to it, and veggies added in would work as well.
 
Nick October 14, 2017
And, served over forbidden rice, made a great combination.
 
Author Comment
Alexandra S. October 14, 2017
Nice! All of this modifications sound great.
 
EmilyAJ October 9, 2017
I made this as written, with half red and half brown lentils. It took about 20 minutes to cook. We loved it, but the biggest fan was my 12 month old, who ate almost as much as we did!
 
Author Comment
Alexandra S. October 9, 2017
The best compliment! How sweet. Thanks for writing ... loved reading this :)
 
Megan H. September 14, 2017
What is a substitute for ground corriandor
 
Author Comment
Alexandra S. September 14, 2017
Do you not have it? Or not like it? You could omit it or use something like garam masala, which typically has ground coriander in it. But if you don't have that, I would simply omit it. There's a lot of flavor in this without it.
 
Megan H. October 10, 2017
I do not have it and I didn’t use it and it still was delicious! Thank you!
 
Author Comment
Alexandra S. October 10, 2017
Wonderful! Happy to hear this!
 
suziqcu August 29, 2017
My apologies, just as I went back to read carefully, I saw Alexandra's comment. Opps! Added water earlier and it looks great. Used french green lentils and we're roasting sweet potatoes, made basmati and also are having Naan! Covering all the bases, lol! it smells divine! Haven't yet added full can of water. I did add vegetable base bouillon paste to the water, not sure I needed to do that. Tastes a bit salty, even though it's reduced sodium.
 
Author Comment
Alexandra S. August 29, 2017
No worries! These things happen all the time :) It all sounds soooo good! If it tastes too salty in the end, you can add more coconut milk or a little bit of lime. It may not taste salty, too, once it's mixed with the rice and sweet potatoes. Yum!
 
suziqcu August 30, 2017
It was delicious. My 15 month old granddaughter approved as well. I did add one carrot to the mix. It wasn't too salty in the end. Looking forward to leftovers!
 
Author Comment
Alexandra S. September 1, 2017
So happy to hear this, suziqcu!
 
suziqcu August 29, 2017
I am now reading as I cook this that it says, "you may need to add more water"...I don't see water in the recipe list or directions. How much water....with coconut milk, I guess.....Not sure what to do now...I'll watch it and make a call in a few minutes
 
Author Comment
Alexandra S. August 29, 2017
Hey! See, the first sentence in step 2. You fill the empty can of coconut milk with water, then dump that in.
 
ErinM724 July 26, 2017
Hmmm....I'm not sure how I feel about my first foray into this. I was hoping it would be a bit like Dal Makhni. I used brown lentils, which took about an hour to cook, along with a small amount of red lentils I had leftover. I used 2 tsp of salt, which was way too much for me, and I should have known that. I did add some red chile flakes, some garlic chili sauce and some lime to try to cut the salt, as well as a spoonful of plain yogurt with my portion. It never seemed to be "creamy" to me...maybe it was the brand of coconut milk I used? (Geisha brand....generally use Taste of Thai) Maybe I'll try again some time using the red/green combo, and do some Thai flavors instead by adding some curry paste....
 
Mary J. June 15, 2017
So, so good. I also used 3/4 c. of red and 3/4 c. of green lentils and used light coconut milk. My husband can't stop talking about it!
 
CanadaDan June 15, 2017
great dish for year round, hot or cold. added 1 tsp of curry powder and a dash of cayenne for heat, which helped i think