Spiced red lentils with cucumber yogurt

Up until this weekend, when we thankfully received our first rains of 2015, it hadn’t rained in Berkeley in months. With no mushrooms to inspire me, combined with the fact that I’ve been in hardcore dissertation writing mode lately, I haven’t taken as much time to cook. But I’m still a poor PhD student and cannot afford to eat out every night, so I was in search of a dish that was healthy, cheap, and easy to prepare. I turned to my old friend Yotam Ottolenghi for some inspiration, and I found this lovely lentil dish “Spiced red lentils with cucumber yogurt” on p. 221 of Plenty, which can be found online here.

Ingredients for curried red lentils

Ingredients for spiced red lentils.

I do not know why it took me so long to discover lentils. Lentils are the perfect food, especially for a PhD student low on funds such as me.  Lentils are really healthy and cheap, and when prepared correctly, can be super delicious and satisfying. Let me tell you, this dish prepares them correctly. This dish is THE BOMB.  It has flavor and spice up the wazoo. As a fair warning, there are a lot of spices involved, all of which I thankfully already own due to the spice buying investments I’ve been making over the last year. But trust me, this dish is so worth it.  You have to soak the lentils in water for 30 minutes prior to cooking, and since I already had the lentils, I placed them in water before heading out to the Berkeley Bowl to grocery shop, so they had ample time to soak.

Limes, cucumbers, ginger, garlic, and onion

Limes, cucumbers, ginger, garlic, and onion for the curried lentils.

Upon returning from the Berkeley Bowl, I started by making the chopped onion mix. I cut off the stalks of the cilantro and roughly chopped the leaves and set those aside. Then I stuck the cilantro stalks in my food processor, followed by a finely diced onion.

Onion mixture in the food processor

Onion, garlic, ginger, green chile, and cilantro in the food processor.

Then I added 3 peeled garlic cloves, 2.5 inches peeled ginger, and a fresh chile. I used a serrano chile, which I removed the seeds from, but presumably any green chile would work.  This mix is a flavor powerhouse. It smelled so fresh and delicious.


This onion, garlic, cilantro, chile mixture was a flavor POWERHOUSE. It smelled so good!

Place a large pan on medium heat and put the mustard seeds in it and wait for them to pop. They start to sound sort of like popcorn – it’s pretty fun! Then add the 4 tbsp sunflower oil and the onion mixture. This is such a flavorful mix – I’m definitely going to have to start employing it in more of my cooking.

While the onion mixture cooks, I mixed together the spices. Mix 1.5 tsp coriander, 1 tsp cumin, 0.5 tsp turmeric, and 0.25 tsp (sweet) paprika. I used regular paprika since I don’t have sweet, but all in all this is a pretty standard curry mix. The one ingredient I did not have was the curry leaves, which I read online you could substitute with basil and a dash of lemon. After the onion mix has been cooking for 10 minutes, add the spices and leaves and cook for 5 minutes.

Coriander, cumin, turmeric, paprika spice mix

Coriander, cumin, turmeric, and paprika spice mixture.

The spices and onion mixture smelled so good while they were simmering! My whole apartment smelled amazing. Two friends dropped by my apartment to pick something up while I was cooking and commented on how good it smelled as soon as they entered the door. Between you and me, I think they were pretty jealous that they weren’t invited over for dinner!

Onion mixture with spice mix and basil leaves

Onion mixture with spice mix and basil leaves.

While the mixture is cooking, take the time to open up a can of peeled chopped tomatoes or to chop up some fresh tomatoes. Peeling tomatoes seemed like too much work for me so I just threw them in whole, and then I added the red lentils with the water they had been soaking in.

Spice and onion mixture with red lentils and tomatoes

Spice and onion mixture with red lentils and tomatoes.

While the lentils simmer for 30 minutes, mix together the Greek yogurt with diced cucumber and olive oil. Once the lentils are cooked, stir in some butter. Ottolenghi suggests 1/3 cup unsalted butter, but I used closer to 2 tbsp. Squeeze the juice from 1 fresh lime and add that to the lentils, and mix in the chopped cilantro leaves that you had set aside earlier. Serve the lentils in bowls, and top with a dollop of the Greek yogurt mixture. While this may not be the best photogenic dish ever, I swear it tasted divine.

Curried red lentils with Greek yogurt and cucumber

Curried red lentils with Greek yogurt and cucumber.

This is definitely going to be my new go-to for a simple and healthy mid-week dish. Especially when there are no mushrooms around!


  • 1 cup split red lentils
  • 1.5 cups water
  • 1 bunch cilantro
  • 1 small onion, peeled
  • 2.5 inches fresh ginger
  • 3 garlic cloves, peeled
  • 1 mild fresh green chile
  • 1.5 tsp black mustard seeds
  • 4 tbsp sunflower oil
  • 1.5 tsp ground coriander
  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • 0.5 tsp ground turmeric
  • 0.25 tsp sweet paprika (I don’t have sweet paprika so I used plain paprika)
  • 10 curry leaves (I didn’t have these so I used basil with a dash of lemon juice, which I read online was a good substitute)
  • 1.75 cups peeled chopped tomatoes (fresh or canned)
  • 2 tsp sugar
  • 0.25 tsp fenugreek (I didn’t have this so I used garlic salt)
  • pinch of asafetida (optional)
  • salt
  • 3/4 cup Greek yogurt
  • 3/4 finely diced cucumber
  • 1.5 tbsp olive oil
  • 1/3 cup unsalted butter (as much as you like)
  • 1.5 tbsp lime juice

2 thoughts on “Spiced red lentils with cucumber yogurt

  1. Bob

    The lack of a process summary at the end after the ingredients bothered me so I read through the story and summarized the preparation process.

    1. Soak the lentils in water for at least 30 minutes.
    2. Add the cilantro, onion, garlic, ginger, and chile to the food processor and pulse until it forms a paste. Use whatever chile works for your spice tolerance, though a serrano is a good place to start.
    3. Place a large pan on medium heat and add the mustard seeds. Wait for them to pop then add the 4 tbsp sunflower oil and the onion-spice mixture and cook for 10 minutes.
    4. While the onion mixture cooks, mix together the coriander, cumin, turmeric, paprika. Then add the spice mix and leaves and cook for another 5 minutes.
    5. Add the tomatoes and the lentils with the soaking water and cook for 30 minutes.
    6. Mix together the Greek yogurt with diced cucumber and olive oil and use as a topping for the cooked lentils

    The following ingredients were not used in the recipe story.

    * 2 tsp sugar
    * 0.25 tsp fenugreek
    * pinch of asafetida
    * salt
    * 1/3 cup unsalted butter
    * 1.5 tbsp lime juice

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