Sri Lankan Lentil Curry (Dhal)


My parents are from Sri Lanka, where they often have lots of very tasty curries (of almost anything), that are deep and rich in flavour from the various spices used. The plus side is that Sri Lankan curries are often vegetarian-friendly, (and even vegan!) given that there are days of fasting from meat due to religious festivals or reasons, particularly among the Buddhists. I’ve only recently started to learn how to cook Sri Lankan curries myself, and I’ve always watched my mom and dad cook various (and tasty) curries, but never attempted to try it myself, deeming it too complicated — especially since they never measure or use recipes!

I’ve always loved dhal (aka lentil curry), so one day I thought I would start there and put my visual learning skills to test by replicating my mom’s delicious recipe. One of my good friends has been dying for this recipe ever since he tried it, because he loves all things lentils and would sell his soul for a warm bowl of lentil soup (his words!). So, here you go AZ! It is super easy, and this recipe is completely vegan. It turned out to be as good as (if not better than, according to my sister) my mom’s 🙂

Makes about 2 cups

  • 3/4 cup of lentils of choice (red, green, or brown, but red is suggested)    *see note
  • 1 and 1/2 cups of water
  • 3 cloves of garlic, sliced
  • 1 small onion, sliced
  • 1 and 1/2 tsp turmeric
  • 1/4 cup coconut milk (canned)
  • 1 tbsp of vegetable or grapeseed oil
  • 1 small cinnamon stick (preferably Ceylon cinnamon)
  • curry leaves, chopped (about 6-8)
  • 1/4 tsp black mustard seeds
  • 1/4 tsp cumin seeds
  • 1 green chilli, sliced (less or more, depending on spice tolerance)
  • 1 dried red chilli (optional)
  • salt, to taste
  • juice of half a lime or lemon   *see note
  • 1/2 tsp curry powder, for garnish


Wash lentils in a strainer or colander to remove any debris or rocks. You may need to do this a couple times. Thoroughly rinse under the water. Transfer lentils to a saucepan and add water. Add 1/4 of the sliced onion, 1 of the sliced garlic cloves, and the turmeric. Bring to a boil over medium heat, then reduce heat to medium-low to maintain a simmer.

This is a double portion, as I was cooking to feed the rest of my family!
This is a double portion, as I was cooking to feed the rest of my family!

Cook uncovered for 20-30 minutes (or longer depending on type of lentils used). Add water as needed to make sure lentils are barely covered. Once lentils are tender and no longer crunchy, remove from heat and add coconut milk. Pour into a bowl and set aside.

Add the oil to the saucepan and heat on medium heat. Add the rest of the sliced onion, garlic, as well as the curry leaves, green chillies, dried chilli (if using), cinnamon stick, mustard and cumin seeds. Stir and sautee until fragrant and the onions become translucent. Add the bowl of lentil mixture and stir for a minute or two. Turn off heat and add salt and lime (or lemon juice) and stir. Sprinkle with the curry powder on top as a garnish. Serve with rice, quinoa, bread, or eat with roti! You can even eat a bowl of this on its own. Perfect for those cold winter days.


  • Red lentils tend to cook faster and become mushier, while green and brown lentils tend to hold their shape better. Sri Lankan dhal typically uses red lentils (though I have used green and brown before)
  • You can often add a bunch of spinach to the lentils after setting aside to add colour and to get some greens in as well!
  • You can add more or less milk (or water) depending on how thick or soupy you like your lentil curry. It can thicken slightly after cooling
  • You can add more or less green chillies depending on your spice tolerance
  • You can adjust the amount of lime or lemon juice you add depending on how lime-y/lemon-y you like it. It’s usually added for a bit of acidity that complements and brings out the rest of the flavours of the curry (while also cutting a bit of the richness of the milk). I like my dhal with more juice

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