Ismail Merchant’s Lemon Dal (Nimbu Masoor Dal)

I would easily guess there are more than 100 dal recipes in my cookbook collection, but Ismail Merchant’s lemon dal has become a favorite. After years of the classic onion/garlic/cumin/coriander/turmeric/mustard-seed dal, and my crush on a ginger/spinach/chili dal soup, this lemon dal is what I often gravitate toward. It’s exceptional, and I’m addicted.

I know of numerous lemony stews with lemon juice added just before serving, but this lemon dal is unique in that you float a lemon-half in the dal for nearly an hour. The slow-steeping softens the lemon, making it fragrant like a gentle lemon perfume, yet the lemon is somehow more deep and elemental without being sharp or salty like a preserved lemon. The other aromatics in this dal are take this in a different direction: cinnamon sticks, ginger and bay leaves. No cumin, no coriander. This is completely different from other dals I know.  A fragrant respite if you’re on cumin-overload.

This recipe was clipped from the LA Times in an article of recipes from the Indian film producer Ismail Merchant. On a recent trip to the downtown LA library, I ended up in the cookbook section as always, and discovered Ismail Merchant’s Indian Cuisine where this lemon dal also appears. I have adapted his original recipe only in omitting the scattering of cilantro at the end.  If you know me, you know that I always skip the cilantro.

Ismail Merchant’s lemon dal (nimbu masoor dal)

6 tablespoons oil
1 medium onion, halved and thinly sliced
2 cinnamon sticks
1 pound masoor dal (orange split lentils) picked over and rinsed
1 1/2 teaspoons chopped ginger
2 1/2 cups vege broth
1/2 teaspoon ground red pepper
1/2 lemon
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 small onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, chopped
1/2 serrano or japapeno chile, chopped with seeds
2 bay leaves


Heat 6 tablespoons oil in a large, deep saucepan over medium-low heat. Add the sliced onion and cook, stirring, until tender. Add the cinnamon sticks, dal, and ginger. Cook, stirring often, 10 minutes.

Add the stock, 2 cups water, red pepper, and salt to taste. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer 10 minutes. Squeeze juice from the lemon halve, straining the seeds. Add the lemon juice and the lemon halve to the lentils. Cook 50 minutes, stirring often. Add up to 1 cup more water, if dal dries out too much.

Heat olive oil in a small pan. Add chopped onion, garlic, chili and bay leaves. Cook, stirring, until onion is browned. Add mixture to lentils and stir. Serve hot.

you may also like…

Dishoom’s Chole: Black Tea Chickpeas
“Khatte Chhole” Sour Indian Chickpeas
Mustard Green Saag Paneer


  1. Leann Augsburger

    I am a privledged participant in the Monday evening Indian feasts and therefore can attest to the yummyness of this lemon dal. I like the addition of quotes to your blog. Mom

  2. L. Black

    Yummy! I loved the cinnamon and lemon tastes.
    I made it with 1/4 tsp McCormick’s Chipotle Chile Pepper spice, and without the chopped chile, as I don’t like things hot/spicy.
    The texture turned out similar to hummus (grainy/creamy) and besides eating it hot with basmati rice, I used it as a dip with toasted pita wedges. Thanks!

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