Makeshift Meals: Spicy (Or Not) Lentil Dahl

As a HelpX or Workaway volunteer it is highly likely that you will be asked to prepare a meal for yourself, the other volunteers, the hosts, or maybe even 15 hostel guests (yes, that happened to us). Arming yourself with a couple of decent recipes before you go is really easy and will save you a lot of scrambling when your host eventually asks you to cook too. In our new series, Makeshift Meals, we’ll be sharing a few of our go-to recipes from the road. (Not to mention that we’ve found cooking for others is a really easy way to make friends too!)

Today’s Makeshift Meal recipe is the Spicy (or Not) Lentil Dahl. (Adapted from Ashley Adams’s Spicy Lentil Dahl recipe here.)

So, here’s the thing, lentils are suuuuuper cheap and you can find them in almost every country in Europe (unlike that other vegetarian protein source, peanut butter). Consequently, we made lentils and rice almost every week. The beautiful thing about this recipe is that it can be doubled, tripled, halved, quartered, etc. to suit your needs. So, when we suddenly had to buy and make dinner for 15 paying hostel guests while we were volunteering at the wonderful Berat Backpackers in Albania – we went out and bought a bag of lentils and some parboiled white rice (the best kind of rice to buy when in Albania, according to the hostel owner, Scotty).

Since the recipe is so versatile, you don’t actually need all of the suggested spices for it to be tasty. So, I’ve divided the ingredients between essential and optional. And because, honestly, sometimes you can’t find fresh ginger in Kotor, Montenegro or Prizren, Kosovo.

The basic essentials. Pretty simple, huh?

Serves 3 (with just rice as a side dish. Could feed up to four with another side dish, like a salad.)
Prep Time
: 10 – 30 minutes*
Cook Time: 35 – 45 minutes, depending on the lentil (green = longer cook time)
Total Time: 45 – 75 minutes

Essential Ingredients:
+ 1 tbsp. (15 mL) of olive oil (because everywhere will have olive oil. Adams’s recipe suggests sesame oil.)
+ 1 chopped white or yellow onion
+ 3 cups (700 mL) of vegetable broth*
+ 1 cup (200 g) dried red lentils, rinsed and picked over (okay to use green lentils)
+ salt and pepper to taste
+ 2 tbsp. (25 g) tomato paste*

+ Lentils: red lentils are best for this recipe as they cook quickly and becomes the best consistency, however we could not find red lentils in every country. You can definitely use green (available everywhere we went), but green lentils cook best if they are soaked for 30 minutes beforehand.
+ Broth: vegetable stock cubes were available everywhere we went. The package is generally small and extremely portable. When you don’t have access to any other spices, the veggie stock is crucial.
+ Tomato Paste: you can also make some substitutions here, for example, a thick ketchup would work well, so does Ajvar, a roasted red pepper and eggplant spread popular throughout the Balkans.

The optional ingredients. Basically, what ever extra stuff we could find in the pantry and fridge.

Optional spices:
+ 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
+ 1 tbsp. (15 g) finely chopped fresh ginger
+ 1 tsp. cumin
+ 1 tsp. coriander
+ 1 tsp. turmeric
+ ¼ tsp. cardamom
+ ¼ tsp. cinnamon
+ ¼ tsp. cayenne pepper
+ hot sauce to taste

Optional veggies:
+ Carrots, sliced
+ Spinach, chopped (fresh or frozen)
+ Cauliflower, chopped

+ Assume about a half cup (US) per person (about 90 grams)
+ 2x the amount of water as rice
+ 1 tbsp. (15 mL) olive oil
+ A pinch of salt

Optional topping:
A dollop of natural yogurt (Europe) or sour cream (US) on top

How to make Dahl:

(1) In a medium-sized soup pot, heat your preferred cooking oil over medium heat. Once the oil is hot, add the onion. Let the onion cook for 2 – 5 minutes, stirring often, before adding garlic, ginger, carrots, and/or cauliflower (if using). Keep cooking and stirring until the onions are translucent and starting to brown around the edges. If using spinach, add the amount now and cook for a minute before step 2.
(2) Stirring constantly, add broth, lentils, and any spices. Bring to a low boil, then turn down heat down to low. Cover pot, and let the lentils simmer for about 20 minutes, or until lentils are very tender. Stir occasionally.

Helpful hint: If using bouillon cubes, make sure to crumble the cube as you add it. And if you have access to an electric kettle, heat up the water for the broth ahead of time. Everything heats up much quicker this way.

(3) Stir in the tomato paste (or substitute) until well combined. Stirring constantly, cook for several more minutes on low, or until the dahl is desired temperature and consistency. You may need to add more water to the dahl, or you may need to keep cooking it until the extra water cooks out. It depends on your preference. We like a thicker consistency, so we usually cook it a bit longer (about 10 – 15 minutes). The thicker dahl sits nicely atop some rice, but some people prefer more of a soup.


L: Before // R: After // The dahl is done when everything is soft and sticks to the spoon.

How to make rice:
(1) In a large pot, bring water, oil, and salt to a boil. Once boiling, stir in rice and return to a boil over medium-high heat. Once boiling again, reduce heat to low, cover, and let simmer until rice is tender and has absorbed all the liquid. White rice will usually cook in 15 – 20 minutes.

(2) Check on the rice after about 15 minutes. Once all of the liquid has been absorbed, remove from heat and let sit, covered, for 10 minutes.

(3) Fluff with fork and serve.

How to serve:
We usually serve this in a bowl, with the dahl on top of the rice. The dish also tastes quite nice with a dollop of natural yogurt or sour cream.

Yum yum gimme some!



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