Updated on 07.06.09

How Low Can You Go? Dal, Chilean Style

Trent Hamm

In April and May, National Public Radio featured a series on inexpensive gourmet dishes entitled How Low Can You Go?” Although many of the dishes looked quite tasty, most of the dishes weren’t actually all that inexpensive, often narrowly getting below $10 to feed a family of four, and many involved arduous cooking processes. I decided to try out some of these recipes throughout the summer to see how I could take the recipes and reduce them down to a simple and very inexpensive form.

Chilean Dal with Chickpea Curry on the side

Dal is a delicious simple Indian dish, often served with rice or wheat flatbread (called “roti”). It’s often a mainstay of vegetarian diets because it provides quite a bit of protein, and the rich flavorings make it palatable to us omnivores as well. Valerie Gaino, of Pichilemu, Chile, submitted a delicious Chilean variant on the dish to the How Low Can You Go contest:

3 cups of lentils
2 cups of chopped potatoes
2 chopped carrots
3 chopped tomatoes
1 hot pepper, chopped
1 small onion chopped
2 gloves garlic chopped
16 ounces tomato sauce
1 tsp cumin
a little beer or sherry
a little red vinegar
olive oil
1/2 cup chopped cilantro
salt and pepper

1. Soak and cook lentils till soft. Drain and rinse, set aside.
2. Sautee onions, garlic, hot pepper, and cumin in olive oil. Add beer or sherry.
3. Add potatoes and carrots, cover with water, bring to boil.
4. Add tomatoes and cook till potatoes are soft.
5. Add lentils and tomato sauce.
6. Salt and pepper to taste. (I sometimes add more water or beer if it’s too thick, or vinegar if it’s too sweet.) Add more cumin or hot sauce if you like it really spicy.
7. Throw in the cilantro, take if off the heat. Serve after a few minutes.

One immediate problem I observed is that the “three cups of lentils” likely refers to three cups of lentils after boiling, which means that 1 1/2 to 2 cups of dry lentils should be more than adequate for this recipe. Three cups of dry lentils would make this recipe mostly flavored lentils with a few other pieces thrown in.

Sarah (my wife, for those of you new to The Simple Dollar) handled most of the food preparation for this dish, so most of the notes that follow come from her. Here are the ingredients we used:

Ingredients for Chilean Dal

First, you simply boil some dry lentils, easily found in the bean section of any grocery store. We only used two cups of dry lentils to start with. Just boil them in a large pot with plenty of water for about thirty minutes or so and they’re fine, then drain the water off of them. This can be done a day or two in advance – store the cooked, drained lentils in the refrigerator. Here are the lentils we had after boiling:

Lentils after draining

While the lentils are boiling, you’re going to be spending that time chopping vegetables – again, something you can do a day or two in advance. The potatoes, carrots, tomatoes, onion, and garlic all need to be chopped.

We use a special knife called an ulu to make this process easier. An ulu is an all-purpose knife used by the Inuit for many different purposes, but it works really well for quickly chopping small amounts of vegetables. You simply grasp it by the handle and rock it back and forth on a cutting board with the vegetables underneath.

Mincing with an ulu knife

Of course, you can use pretty much any knife to chop vegetables – this is just a recipe where the ulu really comes in handy.

Next, I sauteed the onions, garlic, pepper, and cumin together, with about two tablespoons of white sherry. The same amount of a mild beer would be fine.

Starting up

Next, add the potatoes and carrots, then add enough water to cover everything, then raise it to a boil. Once the water is boiling, add the tomatoes and then let it boil for ten minutes or so. Check a piece of potato and see whether it’s soft enough for your tastes – if it isn’t, let it boil for another five minutes and check again.

Cooking Dal

Once the potatoes are finished, it’s basically done. Just add the tomato sauce and the lentils, stir it a bit, season with some salt and pepper, and serve it!

Of course, you’ll want to serve it on something. If you have access to a flatbread, that’ll do just fine. Alternately, you can simply use rice. Here’s our rice steamer in action, steaming while the dal was cooking:

Steaming the rice

You might also want to have something else on the side. We had a very simple chickpea curry – basically just chickpeas (garbanzo beans) loaded up with curry paste. Yes, we love our chickpeas at the Hamm household!

Here’s our final plate:

Chilean Dal with Chickpea Curry on the side

This made a huge amount of dal. We had enough for our dinner that night, lunch the following day, and lunch two days after that for all four of us, and we still wound up freezing some of it.

Did we like it? All of us liked it quite a bit. Sarah perhaps liked it the least, particularly on reheating, and strongly suggested trimming the amount of cilantro, which I agreed with. It was delicious, though, and I was happy eating it even the third time.

Our total cost (ignoring fractional items we had on hand): $8.29, almost entirely on fresh vegetables. Given the amount we made, though, the cost per meal was $0.69 – pretty nice!

Changes I Would Make to Save Cost and Time
First of all, I’d trim the entire recipe by half. This made far too much food for us as is. Without some significant changes, you’ll either be freezing it – not a great option, since the texture will be ruined – or eating it all the time for days.

Second, I’d cut the remaining cilantro by half – and use dried cilantro. Fresh cilantro has a stronger flavor, but dried will work fine.

Third, I’d chop the vegetables and boil the lentils the night before. Turn on a radio in the kitchen and take care of these tasks in the evening so you can toss the meal together very easily when you arrive home from work the next day.

These changes modify the recipe a fair amount, making it cheaper and perhaps slightly faster. Here’s what the new recipe would be, as modified by me:

Trent’s Chilean Dal

1 cup of lentils
1 large red potato, chopped but unskinned
1 chopped carrot
2 chopped tomatoes
1/2 hot pepper, chopped
1/2 small onion chopped
1 clove garlic chopped
8 ounces tomato sauce (small can)
1/2 tsp cumin
1 tbsp beer or sherry
olive oil
1/8 cup chopped cilantro
salt and pepper

Night before:
1. Chop potato, carrot, tomatoes, pepper, onion, garlic, and cilantro.
2. Soak and cook lentils till soft. Drain and rinse, set aside.

Next day:
1. Sautee onions, garlic, hot pepper, and cumin in olive oil. Add beer or sherry.
2. Add vinegar, potatoes, and carrots, cover with water, bring to boil.
3. Add tomatoes and cook till potatoes are soft.
4. Add lentils and tomato sauce.
5. Salt and pepper to taste. Add more water or beer if it’s too dry, or add hot sauce if you like it spicier.
6. Throw in the cilantro, take if off the heat. Serve after a few minutes.

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  1. Kristin says:

    I really enjoy the cooking posts, Trent. Please keep them coming! With that said, this meal is NOT for me!

  2. Rosa says:

    I’m glad to hear the recommendation! It looks good.

    That’s pretty much exactly the meal we have once or twice a month – we use a different dal recipe but also eat the curried chickpeas on the side.

    Mango lassi (mango puree, yogurt, ice, and lemon or lime juice) is cheap, easy, and makes the meal seem really fancy – plus it tames down the spice level for the 4 year old.

  3. PK says:

    I know it’s the same thing, but I just think “garbanzo beans” sounds more appealing than “chickpeas” [chick pee?].

  4. Johanna says:

    Considering that “flavored lentils with a few other pieces thrown in” is pretty much what dal is, I’m not sure why you’re assuming that that’s not what’s intended.

  5. Marsha says:

    I would like to pre-order a copy of The Simple Dollar Cookbook, please. :) Yes, I’m teasing a little bit, but honestly, you might think about it.

    Is that a Black & Decker rice cooker? Looks like mine, but newer. I bought mine in about 1992, and it has worked fabulously. I’m trying to plan some kitchen downsizing with an eye to eliminating single-function items – but this rice cooker would be very hard to part with.

  6. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    “Considering that “flavored lentils with a few other pieces thrown in” is pretty much what dal is, I’m not sure why you’re assuming that that’s not what’s intended.”

    Because three cups of dry lentils makes an absurd amount of food for most families.

  7. Candi says:

    Ah thank goodness I am not vegetarian as like someone else mentioned, this meal is not for me. Sometimes being a picky eater can be problematic. And yes I do continually try new things and old things again, still dislike most of the above ingredients.

  8. friend says:

    Trent, This is one I will save and try. I will definitely use fresh cilantro, and probably the full amount called for, as my family and I appreciate the taste of it. I have read that, to some people, cilantro tastes like soap; they will never like it; it’s a genetic trait. For those of us who do like it, using anything but fresh would miss the point.

  9. Victoria says:

    Any recommendations for a cilantro substitute? The other person in my household has an odd intolerance to cilantro, but I’d love to try this recipe!

  10. Mike Piper says:

    This may be the most appetizing Simple Dollar recipe I’ve seen to date.

    And (without the beer) it’s gluten free too, which means we won’t have to adjust it at all. :)

  11. Rangzy says:

    That’s nice to see a vegetarian balanced food on TSD, finally.
    Audience, FYI: there are many varieties of Dal: Chana dal, Urad Dal, Moong Dal, Thoor Dal, Kabuli Chana, Rajma, Chole, and so on. Each one has its own flavour, texture and taste. Invariably, all of them are rich in proteins. These form a main component of Indian food. (the Asian Indian, not the American Indian).
    You’re lucky if there is an ethnic Indian Store near your place, and visit there to see these.

  12. Johanna says:

    “Because three cups of dry lentils makes an absurd amount of food for most families.”

    Not necessarily. If you look at the picture in the original article (which appears to have been submitted by the same person who submitted the recipe, and so can be taken as an indication of how she actually serves it), it’s got a big bowl of dal with a little bread on the side. Yours has a big pile of rice with a little dal on top and a side dish besides.

    Served her way, three cups of dried lentils is not an absurd amount of food for four hungry adults. You might have some leftovers, but not an enormous amount.

  13. Chris says:

    I am not a big lentil fan but can’t get enough of the lentil soup you get in persian restaurants. With a couple pieces of pita to dip in, i can have that for lunch every day.

  14. Anne KD says:

    I wouldn’t serve this with chickpeas, I’d more likely go with some spinach or zucchini or something a bit more vegetable-y- this is a double dose of legumes. Definitely going to try the recipe with fresh cilantro from our deck :) .

  15. Karen M says:

    I think this looks good, but I have to agree with Johanna and Anne KD on the serving method. First, if you got 16 servings out of this (plus freezing) you aren’t eating much dal per serving. The picture on NPR looks like it is a healthy scoop of dal, no rice, and some bread. And, like Anne KD, I think it needs a veg– but I tend to think every meal needs at least ONE green thing at it.

  16. Maharani says:

    I BEG: Forget the dry cilantro as an alternative to fresh! The entire POINT of the fresh cilantro-as far as “real” Indian food is concerned-is to perk up the dal by adding a fresh green herbal note to a dried bean dish. It also adds micronutrients and in India is usually thrown in at the end and left to steam a few mins with the lid closed so it perfumes the entire dish. Dried cilantro is entirely beside the point. The dal is usually soupier-I often fix a pot instead of soup and typically use red lentils (masoor) which are much more delicate than the brown lentils as well as prettier. I know this is supposedly “Chilean” but people in the US could learn a few useful tricks from Indian cooks, such as this one with the cilantro, if they want to use beans to save money on food.

  17. Maharani says:

    A much better recipe: The real thing….

    Wash 1 cup dried red split lentils (masoor). Drain and place in a pot with enough water to cover by ~ 2 inches. Add 1/2 tsp dry turmeric, 1 inch fresh ginger chopped, 3-4 whole cloves garlic, salt to taste, 1/4 tsp whole black pepper, and 1 green chillie sliced lengthways into 2 (or 1 small dried red chillie crumbled). Throw in half a lemon sliced thinly, seeds removed, peel and all. Cover and cook gently 1h until pureed. Check water-it should be moderately soupy. When done, in a separate pan heat 2 oz good butter till foamy. Add 1/2 tsp cumin seed and cook until brown and throw it on the dal while hot, It will sizzle but that is the point-the cumin butter will flavor the dal superbly, THis is the real thing! You eat the lemon by the way-add less or more to taste. It takes skill to pick a lemon that is not bitter-so add lemon juice if you prefer. If you are using cilantro, chop 2-3 tbsp and add it after the cumin butter-let the dal sit covered 5 mins to infuse the flavors. THis is incredibly cheap and good and I live on it-usually as a soup. Several techniques for making the best of lentils are encapsulated-all authentically Indian. Dont skimp on the spices either-you can also chopped tomato or a few peas.

  18. Danielle says:

    I have an ulu knife and board and I LOVE it. It is hands down the BEST souvenir I have ever been given (my in-laws went to Alaska on a cruise).

    I just may have to try this recipe in the future. At $0.69 per serving, even if we each eat two servings, it’s a great deal.

  19. Affacturage says:

    It is suggested that the recession could continue for years – like the Great Depression or “the lost decade” in Japan – because the remedies being used (e.g., near zero interest rates, massive deficit spending, and bail outs for collapsing firms) will perpetuate the underlying problems instead of solving them. Time will tell, but I am inclined to agree that there could be another dip in 2010.

  20. Becster says:

    I also agree with Johanna and Anne KD – dal WITH rice and another serving of legumes seems a strange combination to me. Whenever I eat dal, it’s with chapatti or naan (or bread of some description) and possibly spinach on the side. But dal is really a meal in itself and needs nothing other than some bread to mop up leftovers.

  21. Lotsofbluesky says:

    Thank you for the Chilean Dal recipe. It’s great to see more vegetarian recipes. By the way, cooked lentils can be used to replace ground beef for making meatballs, meatloaf, pasta dishes with meat etc. Don’t just boil them in water. Add tomato sauce to the water (even ketchup works amazingly well), pepper, chopped onions and some salt. Then use in a recipe to replace chopped beef. It’s a good way to contribute less to climate change, it’s peaceful (doesn’t kill a cow), good nutrition and tastes good too. Maybe a green vegetable like broccoli would be good on the side. Steam some broccoli and then heat a little oil, add cumin to the oil and then pour over steamed broccoli. Tastes real good.

  22. Katie says:

    Please stop bringing up the cost of the “how low can you go” meals in a negative way. $10/meal for a family of four is MUCH less than the average you (Trent) spend per meal (discussed extensively in the comments as I recall). The contest was for a delicious meal for a family of four for under $10. Obviously you can go lower and still provide nice meals, but I got the impression these meals were supposed to be a very good value for the money – a very Simple Dollar idea.

  23. DB Cooper says:

    I wish you’d just start your food blog so this stuff could go there, and TSD could focus more on true personal fincance issues. I understand that cooking frugaly is a related topic…but I don’t check in to read recipes. My two cents…

  24. veer says:

    I am an Indian and we cook everyday and most of our dishes are rice and dal based. I will try to simplify your recipe a bit and see if it would make it tasty too.

    Some pointers:
    – Dal and black pepper don’t go well together. .
    – Cayenne Pepper rules in Indian cooking.
    – We don’t use alcohol in Indian cooking.

    While lots of dishes can be made with Dal, I will give you two simple recipes. Both of them are south Indian and go well with rice.

    1. Sambhar


    Vegetables: Most vegetables are good. Reccomendations are Carrots, Potato, Green Beans, Okra, Indian Egg plant ( smaller in size than regulat Egg plant ), Radish, Zuchini, Squash etc. ( Chopped )

    Use one or a combination of Vegetables from above and it gives a different taste.

    Onions – 1
    Tomato – 2
    Sambhar Powder – 1Tbsp ( @ Indian Store )
    Tamarind Paste – 1/2 Tsp (@ Indian Store )
    Asafoetida – less than 1/4 Tsp.just a pinch ( @ Indian store )
    Toor Dal – 3/4 of a cup ( @ Indian Store )
    Turmeric Powder – 1/2 Tsp
    Salt – to taste

    1. Chop the vegetables and cook with Dal and water in a pressure cooker – ( 2 whistles if you have a pressure cooker if not by the method you follow ). Water should cover the Dal and vegetables.
    2. Chop Tomatoes and Oninon and set aside.
    3. Saute the Tomatoes and Onion in oil.
    4. Add Sambhar Powder, Asafotida and mix them well.
    5. Add the cooked Dal+Vegetables.
    6. Add Tamarind Paste and Salt and mix.
    7. Heat for a while for them to merge.

    – Pressure Cooker is a good Investment to cook lot of things along with Dal. This will keep your cooking time less and save fuel.
    – Sambhar Powder – This is a combination of Cayenne Pepper, Corriander Powder, Cumene etc.
    – Turmeric Powder has lot of medicinal values and is reccomended for everyday cooking. Almost all Indian dishes have this in small proportion. Fights against Alzheimers.
    – Curry Leaf is another ingredient which can be sauted along with Tomato and Onions. Adds flavor and has medicinal value.
    – While using Daal, different Daals have different natures. Channa Daal is tastier but will cause gas if eaten in large proportion, hence not used in Sambhar.

    Indian cooking is not only tasty but the food has lot of medicinal values. Eating well made Indian food keep your body and mind healthy.

    There are different ways to be done the above. Cooking the Vegetables with Dal gives a different flavor with different vegetables. Also saute vegetables with Onion and Tomatoes instead of cooking with the Toor Dal and it gives a different taste.

    Try some Indian Vegetables from Indian Store for Sambhar. Try with Indian Drumstick for example.

    2. Daal

    This is even simpler than the above and quicker. Doesn’t need vegetables or Tamarind Paste.

    Onions – 1
    Tomato – 2
    Cayenne pepper – 1 Tsp
    Toor Dal – 1 Cup
    Salt – to taste
    Turmeric Powder – 1/2 Tsp


    1. Pressure Cook Daal.
    2. Saute Onions, Tomato
    3. Add Cayenne Pepper, Turmeric Powder and Salt and Mix
    4. Add the cooked Daal and let it heat up for a little while as the ingredients merge.

    Serve with rice.

    This is much simpler and goes very well with Rice. For a side dish, eat with Spicy Chicken or Broiled Fish.

    I will give you a blog of Indian cooking. Not sure if it is updated regularly, but this will give you a few ideas on both vegetarian and meat based Indian recipes. Its much easier following blogs than Indian recipe website which have too many options to get started.


    Also, if you are buying Indian spices, you can go with the following and get value for your money as these can be used in all Indian dishes:

    1. Cayenne Pepper
    2. Turmeric Powder
    3. Cumene Powder

    Feel free to email me if you have questions.

  25. Isha says:

    This looks good. I really enjoy Indian food, and I appreciate how you break down the costs to give us an idea of how much we’re spending. I need to do that more often. As a vegetarian, I appreciate veg friendly recipes, but I often take ideas from all kinds of recipes I find. Keep ’em coming.

    @Rangzy: Glad to see your note.

  26. Arthi says:

    I was thinking that you do not enjoy Indian food, since you’ve not posted any Indian recipes so far :-)

    If you are going to have dal with rice/flatbread and some vegetables on the side, you can get by with 1/4 or 1/3 cup of dal per person per meal. With flatbreads, you need lesser dal than with rice.

    Like you say, you dont want the aroma of cilantro overpowering the meal, so only a few strands will be enough.

  27. Frith says:

    I like the How Low Can You Go segments. I discovered TSD a couple of months ago, and I love how you incorporate everything in your life to make personal financial responsibility seem holistic, attainable, and (low-rent bobo) cool. I look to your blog less for advice (although you give some good advice, too) than for inspiration. Since I started reading, we’ve committed to a budget and each started exercise plans and food diaries. We also eat dinner at the table every night. Thanks, Trent! (P.S. Stop hating on cilantro. No way in hell dried equals fresh, and recipes that call for 2 tbsp need 4, never 1!)

  28. Kim says:

    I enjoy reading the recipes but most of them I would never make to actually eat. I don’t care for rice or beans. I think it’s great that your kids eat things like this. Mine would have choosen starvation over a meal like this!

  29. Mike says:

    Trent, how much vinegar in your version of the recipe?

  30. William Fennell says:

    I never tried Indian food until I started working with some Indian guys. I really like it now. I’ll try this.

  31. Steven says:

    Hey Trent, I just made this tonight! thanks for the idea..I added ground lamb to the mix (because I had it) and it was wonderful!

  32. Anna says:

    I agree with Anne KD and Karen M that you definitely need a green vegetable. Chickpeas and lentils are too much alike to be served in the same meal unless you have something green and leafy for balance — both tastewise and nutritionally.

  33. Valerie says:

    I LOVE your cooking class. I eat beans and lentils, no problem. Really appreciate the pictures and cost breakdown. Normally my eyes glaze over reading recipes, but with the pictures and your comments, I felt like making this dish right away. This is the best column.

  34. BJ says:

    The art to this is cooking the onions are really long time so they get good caramelized flavor.

    I also suggest making it into a soup with the left overs with a bit of broth. You can freeze as well. Lentil soup is really good.

  35. Kimberly says:

    If you cook the veggies and then add the liquid and tomato sauce,then cook the lentils in this mixture, you will have far more flavor and will only use one pot. Cooking the lentils in only water = bland lentils.

    It also tastes nice to add some broth instead of water. This type of thing tastes great with Naanm which is Indian flatbread.

  36. Kate says:

    I love the recipes on this blog and I hope that you won’t separate them from the Simple Dollar. Cooking at home is one major way to save money and having the occasional recipe post here reinforces that (and if someone doesn’t like them, they can skip over them). My husband and I just got back from a vacation and we were grateful that we booked several nights at places where we could cook so that we could save some money and also eat some healthy meals. Even when we eat out, we generally share an entree but even that adds up after awhile.

  37. sarah says:

    Do you think you could make this in the crockpot?

  38. Mike says:

    I ended up using 2 1/2 TBL of vinegar. I also added a little bit more cumin. I used a can of diced tomatoes instead of fresh too.

  39. Terry says:

    I always worry when I encounter a recipe ingredient (“olive oil”) of unspecified volume/weight/quantity.

    How much is an appropriate amount of olive oil in this case? I’m guessing that 1.5 tablespoons would be okay – not likely to be TOO inappropriate – but what do I know?

  40. Mike says:

    Forgot to add that we enjoyed this quite a bit. I will definitely be making this again. Next time, I will try to cook the lentils with the carrots and potatoes and use some chicken stock in place of some of the water. If that doesn’t work, the next time I make it I’ll cook the lentils separate but use stock instead of water.

  41. davidg says:

    Spinach is my favorite green vegetable with lentils.
    Add 8-10 oz. chopped spinach at any stage of this recipe, or cook it separately and serve it on the side.

  42. veer says:

    One correction. I had written a post with couple of recipes. It is probably waiting moderation, but I had mentioned on using 1/2 tsp of turmeric. The correction is to use a pinch of turmeric instead.

  43. angela says:

    There is no substitute for fresh cilantro. Dried herbs can be cheaper. But you usually have to buy them in quantities that do not last. (Most dried herbs have a quite limited lifespan in your pantry.) Fresh cilantro is pretty cheap, and what you gain in flavor over even “fresh” dried is worth the small difference. Better yet: grow your own.

    Also, chopping vegetables ahead of time is not really all that much of a timesaver when making this dish. You need something to do while your rice and lentils are cooking: Chop vegetables! Especially if you store them in water overnight, they lose flavor and nutrients.

    Also, someone mentioned adding something green. I make dishes like this all the time and find that kale works extremely well. It’s not authentic Indian, but it holds up well to the heat and is a beautiful dark green (not to mention extremely full of nutrients).

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