Red Lentil and Kale Stew – Masoor Dal

In cooking, as in life, all innovation is adaptation.  We take in what has already been done and, working with whatever we’ve got, tweak it with the spice and flavor that makes it uniquely our own.  And then others take the baton from us and it just keeps going.  It’s how we evolve.

I have been making a variation of this recipe since my son was a baby and I was fortunate enough to discover Cynthia Lair’s book, Feeding the Whole Family.  I’m pretty sure I was introduced to this book from Amanda Soule, aka Soulemama of, when we were new mamas trying figure out how to feed our new families.  In Lair’s book she gives credit for the recipe to an Indian restaurant in Seattle called Silent-Heart-Nest, who calls the soup Masoor Dal (the Indian name for red lentils).  From inspiration to innovation, we just keep going.

One of my favorite variations adds kale – shocking, I know.  And asafetida – which I discuss in an earlier post as well, and is optional in this recipe. I also add nigella, or kalonji, delicious little black seeds that give a pungent and authentically Indian flavor to the stew, also optional.  They are purported to have numerous medicinal properties, including relieving gas…hee hee…which helps with any lentil or bean product.  The cumin seeds help in this way too.  I have found nigella seeds at Concord Mart in Concord, NH, and they are available online.

You could use curry powder again, although starting to build your toolbox of individual spices will allow you to customize the flavor more to your unique taste.  Like ready-made clothes in India, curry powder will do, but when you get a garment custom tailored to your shape, it really fits you.

I often cut out the onions and garlic that are in Lair’s recipe.  While they taste delicious, through time I use them less and less in my own food because they are so strong.  Unless i want them as medicine to ward off a cold.  Asafetida and nigella seeds add some of the pungency that the onions and garlic would impart, and feels easier to digest.  I also add in ginger juice and jalapeno, which also add a peppery-ness, and help promote digestion too.

You can use olive oil in this recipe to make it vegan, although the butter or ghee (clarified butter) gives a delicious creaminess and also makes the lentils softer and easier to digest.  To make your own ghee, try this recipe from Vasant Lad at the Ayurveda Institute in New Mexico.

A trick I learned to know if the ghee is done is to take a clean strip of paper and dip it into the butter.  Ghee is used in oil lamps, so if the paper burns clean without sputtering when lit, it is now free of milk solids and is ready to be taken off the heat.  I like to do this over the sink and then douse the paper with the faucet.

Playing with my food is one of my favorite things to do, and I encourage you to do the same.  If you are a beginning cook, follow recipes to a T to start to get an understanding of how foods work together.  Yet realize that your lentils may be slightly bigger than mine or your ginger juicier or your kale more tough.  We have to adapt to what we have to work with.  And as you start to get a hang of it, experiment, a lot.  Sometimes I take a little bowl of soup out and try adding a certain spice or vegetable or condiment to taste it before adding it to the whole pot.  Once it’s in, there’s no taking it out…

Once of my teachers, Parvathi Nanda Nath Sarasvati (Kirin Mishra) says that it is our responsibility to allow what we learn to distill through us and transform into the unique interpretation that we are able to offer to the world.  Of course, this is my interpretation…

So make the best food your mouth can imagine!  From our own experience is where we find what we have to share.

Red Lentil and Kale Stew – Masoor Dal

2 teaspoons oil, butter or ghee


1 Tablespoon cumin seed

1 Tablespoon nigella (optional)

2 teaspoons turmeric powder

Large pinch asafetida (optional)

¼ teaspoon cayenne


3 Tablespoons curry powder


½ -1 whole jalapeno (optional, depending on taste)

1-14.5 oz can diced tomatoes

2 cups red lentils

8 cups water

4 cups kale, stemmed and chopped into bite sized pieces

1 teaspoon sea salt

Optional, if using individual spices:

2 teaspoons oil, butter or ghee

2 teaspoons cumin seed

2 teaspoons mustard seeds

1 inch ginger root

1/3 cup cilantro (optional – leave out if you are feeling cold)

Sesame oil to taste (optional)

Cooked rice or quinoa if desired

Heat on medium high a pot large enough to hold all of the ingredients.  Add oil, butter or ghee.  Add one cumin seed, when it pops add the rest along with the nigella.  When aromatic add the rest of the spices Or add curry powder.  Stir.  Add jalapeno if using.  Stir again.

Add diced tomatoes, stir.  Cook together for a few minutes, stirring occasionally.

Meanwhile wash the red lentils.  Add them to the pot, stir to coat.  Add 8 cups of water.  Stir to blend.  Bring to a boil and then let simmer about 40 minutes.  Stir often to keep from sticking to the bottom.

Prepare kale by stemming – holding the bottom stem in one hand and stripping the leaf from the stem from bottom to top with the other hand.  Chop into bite sized pieces.  Wash and add to stew.  Cook until both kale and lentils are soft.  This time will vary.  Add more water if necessary – bringing the heat up until the water boils then returning it to a simmer.

WAIT until the lentils are completely soft before you add the salt.  Or they will never completely soften.  This is true with beans too.  Learn it now and save yourself some trouble.

Heat oil, butter or ghee and melt, then roast cumin and mustard seeds if using.  Add to stew.

Grate ginger on the small holes of a cheese grater and then squeeze juice into stew.  Taste.  Add some of the gratings – I do about ½ of what is there – if you want more gingery spice.

Chop cilantro, if using, and add to stew.  Blend well.

Serve alone in a bowl or atop rice or quinoa.  Top with more cilantro and a drizzle of sesame oil if desired.

Serves 4 with some leftovers.  Maybe.  I always make a large pot like this so I don’t have to cook again right away.

2 thoughts on “Red Lentil and Kale Stew – Masoor Dal

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