Recipe: Varhadi Daal with Red Bell Pepper

memories of a rustic daal

My fathers’ elder brother, Kakaji as we called him, moved to work in Nagpur after he graduated from the Maharashtra Police Academy, shortly before my father graduated from the same place and moved to Bombay. As children, we spent many winter breaks visiting cousins. The 18 hour Gitanjali Express train ride took us from a hot coastal Mumbai to Nagpur, nestled in the Vidharbh region of Maharashtra, tucked away in the middle of the country. This area has a generous bounty of forests filled with flora and fauna and large tracts of agricultural land, producing the country’s best oranges and cotton and we passed these fields and orchards on our way inland. The ride was magical and I remained glued to the barred train window throughout the journey.

The Vidharbh region is named after the local kings who flourished in the region during the 3rd century. This region is also called Varhad, and Varhadi referring to a dialect of Maharshtra – that comes off as a combination of Marathi – with some Telegu, Bihari / Hindi and a slew of local micro dialects. Regardless of the mix, if one speaks or understands Marathi – it is easy to navigate the conversation.

The Vidharbh region is also prone to droughts, influencing the way people grow food, cook and eat. The everyday cuisine is often rustic, simple, flavorful and spicy versus elaborate preparations that require far too many ingredients.

Apart from all the goofy fun times with cousins, bike rides, picnics to nearby places and wandering through my aunts’ elaborately maintained terrace garden filled with several rose varieties and lemons, I most looked forward to being around Kakaji. He was a very strict parent – but with a heart of pure molten gold. When they were younger, the two brothers were often inseperable. Kakaji grew up to remain interested in cooking meals and my father learned how to pick the best fruits.

Kakaji was an excellent cook and quite mischievous, and would often tease me - since I was the littlest and the skinniest one of all the kids, he was not going to feed me in his home. Then he would turn around and make my favorite dishes, a simple Varhadi daal. He seemed to effortlessly throw it together - combining some very simple ingredients – ghee, mustard seeds, a few red chilli peppers and lots of fresh garlic... I could down a quart of this daal without looking up from my plate. Seeing my healthy appetite he would tease me again, saying perhaps my mother could not cook well enough! It was all in good fun though, as my mother remembers fondly how much he enjoyed her cooking!

This Varhadi daal pays homage to what he prepared and is a variation of the Varan recipe, keeping the preparation easy and the flavors simple yet distinct. I love the sweetness and color of red bell peppers and find many ways to add it into my diet. Green bell pepper is an easy substitution for an added punch to the dish, use whichever suits your fancy.

Makes: 2-3 servings

Diet: Vegetarian

Prep Time: <20 minutes

Cook Time: <5 minutes


1 tblsp ghee or butter (do not use oil, it will alter the taste)

1 tsp cumin seeds

1 tsp mustard seeds

1 tsp freshly minced garlic

4-5 fresh curry leaves

1-2 dried whole red chilli peppers, broken into bits

½ cup diced red bell pepper (1” pieces)

2 cups pre-cooked Toor daal

Splash of lemon juice

Salt to taste


1 tsp ghee or butter (do not use oil, it will alter the taste)

¼ tsp cumin seeds

2 large whole red chilli peppers


Heat the ghee in a small heavy bottom saucepan. As it warms, add the cumin seeds and mustard seeds and allow them to crackle. Turn the heat down, add the garlic, curry leaves and stir it in. Add the dried red chilli peppers and diced red bell pepper and sauté until the bell pepper appears to soften a little, about 1 minute. Keeping the heat on low, add the precooked Toor daal to allow the spices to mingle. Cook for 2-3 minutes. Give it a stir during the cooking process to prevent the daal from settling or sticking to the bottom. Season with salt; add a splash of lemon juice. Set aside.

Just prior to serving, warm up the ghee for the tadka in a smaller separate saucepan. Add the cumin seeds and whole red chilli peppers, allowing the chilli peppers to slightly char. Pour this hot mix over the warmed daal. Serve hot with a side of warm paratha’s.

For those of using ‘Crack The Code’, this recipe incorporates codes 1, 2, 4 and 6.

What is Crack the Code? Crack the Code: Cook Any Indian Meal With Confidence is a methods-book about how to best use spices in Indian cooking. It is a short ebook and goes through the process of composing a dish v.s. using a recipe.

Crack the Code is available on iTunes & Amazon/Kindle


Nandita Godbole

Once a botanist & landscape architect.

Now a personal chef & author, an artist, graphic designer, blogger & poet. 


Loves freshly brewed chai, the crisp salty ocean breeze, watching monsoon rains & walking barefoot through cold mountain streams. 


Believes in the strength, positivity of the human spirit. Is spiritual but not a fanatic. 


Mom of one. Two, if she counts her husband.

Nandita is a proud member of the Asian American Journalists Association & Association of Food Journalists.

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