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Cynthia's Coconut Dal with Kale

Recipe by: by Cynthia Shanmugalingam, chef & author of Rambutan: Recipes from Sri Lanka

Serves: 4

Cynthia's Coconut Dal with Kale
Photo by:  

Alex Lau

Excerpted from Rambutan: Recipes from Sri Lanka by Cynthia Shanmugalingam. Copyright © 2022. Available from Bloomsbury Publishing.

In war or other times of national crisis, dal is rationed out by the Sri Lankan government as one of life’s essentials. Cooked with lemongrass and, if you  can get it, pandan leaf (which adds a warm, vanilla flavour) as well as coconut milk, turmeric, curry leaves, garlic and lime, this dal is distinctively light and restorative, and is worlds away from its Indian counterparts like black dal makhani made with cream, or tarka dal made with butter. There is no other dal quite like it, and I encourage you to try adding roasted squash or pumpkin or roasted sweet potato. This one is one of the ways my mum would cook it when she was too short on time to make a separate kale curry. She’d simply stir the leaves in very close to the end of cooking so they retained their bright green flavour and nutrients. 

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For the Sri Lankan curry powder
For the dal
  • 300 grams red split lentils or toor lentils
  • 3 garlic cloves, peeled and halved lengthways
  • 1 lemongrass stalk, bruised 1½ tsp salt, or to taste
  • ½ tsp Sri Lankan curry powder (recipe above)
  • Optional: 4-centimeter piece of pandan leaf
  • 1½ teaspoon Pragati Turmeric
  • 100 milliliters coconut milk
  • 3 to 4 small handfuls of kale (approx. 200g)
  • ½ lime
  • Optional: 1 teaspoon powdered Guntur Sannam Chillies
For the temper
  • 1 tablespoon coconut or vegetable oil
  • 1 small red onion, peeled and finely sliced
  • 10 fresh curry leaves
  • ½ teaspoon Bindu Black Mustard
  • ½ teaspoon Jodhana Cumin


To make the Sri Lankan curry powder
  1. Make sure the windows are open and the ventilation is on, because roasting the chillies will kick up an intense smell which carries through the house. In a dry pan over a low medium heat, roast the coriander, cumin, fennel and black peppercorns for 1–2 minutes, stirring regularly, until they begin to be really fragrant,  then pour them into a bowl. Add the oil to the  pan, and cook the curry leaves and dried chillies for 2–3 minutes, stirring often. Remove from the  heat and when cool, blitz in a spice grinder or mini food processor until fine – you can blitz it in batches if you need to. Stir in the turmeric, and put the whole lot in a jam jar. 
To make the dal
  1. Pour the lentils into a saucepan and rinse loosely under the tap then drain well. Cover the lentils with water until they’re submerged  by about 5cm. Add the garlic, lemongrass, salt, SL curry powder and pandan leaf, if using. Bring to a boil over a medium-high heat. 
  2. Skim off any scum and turn the heat down, so the lentils are simmering. Add the turmeric and simmer for 12–15 minutes until the lentils are tender. There’s no need to stir here, you can basically forget about them except to check they’re not bubbling too vigorously. 
  3. Drain off about eighty per cent of the liquid. You don’t want it to be too wet and soupy because you’re adding coconut milk later. 
  4. Stir in coconut milk and kale and allow to simmer gently for 2–3 minutes until the kale is bright green. Take out a little kale  to try; it shouldn’t taste raw but should be soft with a firm bite. Remove from the heat and transfer to your serving bowl. 
  5. In a small frying pan, make the temper. Heat the oil over a  medium-high heat (careful, it will splutter a little). When hot, add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally for 3–5 minutes 
  6. until it starts to turn golden brown. Add the curry leaves, mustard seeds, and cumin seeds and cook for a couple of minutes until the curry leaves are bright green. Be careful not to burn the spices! 
  7. Pour the whole temper, oil included, onto the cooked dal. Squeeze lime over it and sprinkle over the chilli flakes, if using, just before serving. 

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