Let's talk through the story of my favorite red lentil soup. Years ago, two of my neighbors hosted a soup party. It was an inspiring affair - big pots of simmering soups and stews, house full of chatty, friendly people. Part of what I liked was the simple premise. The hosts (David & Holly) made a number of soups, guests were asked to arrive with their drink of choice and one thing to share - salad, appetizer, or something sweet.
One of the vegetarian soups that night was a beautiful shade of yellow-orange. It was a light-bodied, curry-spiced coconut broth thickened with cooked red lentils and structured with yellow split peas. It appeared to be a beautiful take on lentil soup. When I asked Holly to tell me about it, she mentioned it was based on an Ayurvedic dal recipe in the Esalen Cookbook, a favorite of hers. I suspect that recipe might have been inspired by the Bengali-style cholar dal where you see chana dal punctuated with raisins in many preparations.
Holly happened to have an extra copy of the Esalen book, and sent me home with my belly full, a new cookbook tucked under my arm, and a few suggestions related to the soup. I still make this soup regularly, love it (so much!), and thought it might be fun to revisit it today in video form - enjoy! I've also included some notes related to adapting this soup to the Instant Pot.
What Makes this so Special?
The method used to bring this soup together caught my attention. While your lentils are boiling, you saute lots of scallions in butter (or ghee, coconut oil, or olive oil) in another pan. Add to those scallions a fat dollop of thick tomato paste along with plenty of toasted spices and you're on your way. This flavor bomb is what you stir into the lentil base. Golden raisins plump up with curry broth. There are beautiful back notes of ginger, and depth from that tomato paste. It all comes together in one amazing bowl of restorative, lentil soup goodness. To be honest, I consider the raisins optional and make this often without - or sometimes I swap in some chopped dates.
I've cooked this soup countless times over the years and tend to finish it with what I have on hand. The original recipe has you go big on cilantro. But you can see in these photos I sometimes pile it high with extra scallions and freshly-baked kale chips. Other ideas:
- finish with a few big handfuls of finely shredded green cabbage
- stir in a few big handfuls of chopped kale
- fry 30-40 fresh curry leaves in a few tablespoons of oil adding some chile flakes (or torn chiles), mustard seeds and cumin seeds in the last 15 seconds or so. Pour generously over each bowl
- finish with deeply roasted tomatoes and omit the raisins
There was one variation that I noted after cooking this because it stuck out to me as particularly delicious. I was out of scallions and ginger but still wanted to make something along these lines. Instead I used a strong paste made of chopped garlic and serrano peppers - probably a 50/50 blend. I added a few tablespoons of the mixture in place of the scallions in the recipe. The end result was feisty, strong and really wonderful.
I hope you enjoy this as much as we have over the last decade or so! Here's where you can find all the soup recipes, if you want to explore more. And there are lots of lentil recipes in the archives as well.
Coconut Red Lentil Soup (Esalen Ayurvedic Dal)
See the photo in the main entry if you aren't sure what type of lentils and split peas to buy. For those of you who are curious, I used the Terre Exotique Madras Curry Powder I picked up in Paris - it looks like it is available here now too (I think I've come across it on Amazon's grocery section). Vegans - you can easily make this vegan by using coconut or olive oil in place of the butter called for.
- 1 cup / 7 oz / 200g yellow split peas
- 1 cup / 7 oz / 200g red split lentils (masoor dal)
- 7 cups / 1.6 liters water
- 1 medium carrot, cut into 1/2-inch dice
- 2 tablespoons fresh peeled and minced ginger
- 2 tablespoons curry powder
- 2 tablespoons butter, ghee, olive oil or coconut oil
- 8 green onions or scallions, thinly sliced
- 3 tablespoons golden raisins (optional)
- 1/3 cup / 80 ml tomato paste
- 1 14- ounce can coconut milk (or less)
- 1 teaspoon fine grain sea salt, plus more to taste
- one small handful chopped cilantro (and/or lots of kale chips)
Give the split peas and lentils a good rinse - until they no longer put off murky water. Place them in an extra-large soup pot, cover with the water, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer and add the carrot and 1/4 of the ginger. Cover and simmer for about 30 minutes, or until the split peas are soft.
In the meantime, in a small dry skillet or saucepan over low heat, toast the curry powder until it is quite fragrant. Be careful though, you don't want to burn the curry powder, just toast it a bit. Set aside. Place the butter in a pan over medium heat, add half of the green onions, the remaining ginger, and raisins (if using). Saute for two minutes stirring constantly, then add the tomato paste and saute for another minute or two more.
Add the toasted curry powder to the tomato paste mixture, mix well, and then add this to the simmering soup along with a splash of coconut milk and salt. Add more coconut milk if you want it creamier.
Simmer, uncovered, for 20 minutes or so. The texture should thicken up, but you can play around with the consistency by adding more water (or coconut milk), a bit at a time, if you like. You can keep it more brothy and soup or stew-like, or simmer longer for a thicker consistency - more like many of the dals I've had. The thicker this gets, the more I like it, and it's extra great the day or two after cooking.
Sprinkle each bowl generously with cilantro (or lots of kale chips) and the remaining green onions.
Instant Pot variation: For Instant Pot users, one of you (thanks Andrea!) just wrote to me and said this soup works great in the IP: saute the spice, onions, tomato paste, ginger, and raisins. Add the lentils, split, peas, ginger, carrot and water and cook on high pressure for 15 minutes with a natural release. Then, I add the coconut milk.
This recipe has been adapted over the years from the 2006 edition of the Esalen Cookbook. The version you see here (along with relevent notes) is how I tend to make it circa 2023.