September 22, 2015

Lentil cakes in Potato & Tomato curry

September 22, 2015
Sponge-like patties, dhokla, have been steaming on Gujarati stoves for centuries. Made of fermented chickpea lentils and rice, they look like yellow diamonds on a plate.

Also for hundreds of years, but some 2000 kilometers (1300 miles) east – across the core lands of India – mothers and aunties by the muddy slopes of Ganges, in Bengal, have been frying another kind of savory cakes, dhoka. They are smaller and crispier than their northwestern resemblance. Bengalis dip them in curries instead of serving them as a side-dish, snack or breakfast. In addition to their likeness in etymology, dhokla and dhoka are also bound together by a common ingredient, chana-dal.

Consider chana-dal as lentil because it’s processed from hulled and split gram, or chola boot – the most popular chickpea variety growing in Indian subcontinent. Plump and meaty, chana-dal has higher fibre content than many lentils and it provides a valuable source of plant protein.
Now, take the shortest route from Kolkata to Helsinki via Pakistan, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Russia. Our cottage is an hour drive from the airport. Because there are similar country houses around, look for the one that carries off the fragrance of ghee, hing and kalonji along with the wood smoke. We have set the midday meal on the table, and it includes dhokar dalna. Hopefully you don’t mind sitting on the floor!

When your eyes meet a gravy-like main dish in which the sauce is fairly thin – that’s dalna. It usually has potatoes, either alone or with other absorbent vegetables like cauliflower or pumpkin. Tomatoes, yogurt, coconut milk, and different seed pastes may enrich the sauce. Whereas chenna dalna contains cheese patties, dhokar dalna comes with lentil cakes. Sometimes other legumes, like split peas, replace chana-dal; sometimes chickpea flour, or besan, plays the leading role.
Making dhoka is easy but there are few things to pay attention to. When grinding dal, use very little but enough water to reach a smooth consistency. If the mixture is too dry, the patties will crack when you fry them. Trust me; I’ve experienced that, too.

You could substitute kalonji seeds for dry-roasted jeera powder when making dhokar. In that case, throw them in at the same time with hing powder. I would probably omit kalonji seeds in the gravy then and, instead, sauté jeera seeds with ginger, tejpatta and hing.

For spicier dhokar dalna, supplement the recipe with green chilies. You can also mix finely grated ginger in the dal paste.
I’ll show you some other time how to prepare dhokla. You will then be able to decide whether you are Gujarati or Bengali at heart! I already know which one I am.


Ingredients for the lentil cakes:
½ cup (125 ml) split gram (chana dal)
Water for soaking overnight
About 2 Tbsp water for grinding
1 Tbsp ghee or oil
A pinch of pure hing powder
A pinch of Himalayan salt
1 tsp jeera seeds, dry roasted and ground

Ingredients for the gravy:
2 – 3 Tbsp ghee or oil
1 Tbsp grated ginger (juice removed)
2 small tejpatta
Less than ¼ tsp pure hing powder
1 tsp kalonji seeds
2 medium size potatoes, peeled and cubed
2 medium size tomatoes, peeled and chopped
2 cups (500 ml) water
½ tsp cayenne powder
¼ tsp turmeric powder
1 tsp jeera seeds, dry roasted and ground
2 green cardamom seeds, lightly crushed (or ½ - 1 tsp powdered garam masala)
1 tsp Himalayan salt

Ingredients for frying the cakes:
Ghee or oil

Cooking method:
Sort, wash and soak the dal in plenty of water for about 8 hours. Drain.

Add enough water to the dal to grind it in a spice mill or food processor (1 to 3 Tbsp).

Heat up the ghee or oil over moderate heat and sauté the hing powder for about 30 seconds and then scoop in the dal paste. Keep stirring it until it thickens for about 5 minutes. As it will stick to the bottom of the pan, keep stirring. It’s ready when it pulls away from the sides and forms a solid mass. Now add the roasted jeera powder and salt. Mix well and spread the paste in a buttered/oiled platter.Tap it into an even rectangle. When it cools down, cut it into mouth size diamond shapes or squares.

While the paste is cooling down, make the gravy. Heat up the ghee or oil in a pot. When it’s hot but not smoking, drop in the ginger paste and tejpatta. When the ginger turns a few shades darker, add the hing powder and kalonji seeds. Fry for 30 to 40 seconds and add the potato cubes. Keep frying them until they become golden and crispy. Mix the potatoes occasionally. Add the tomatoes and fry until they start to stick to the bottom of the pan, and the ghee or oil begins to separate from them. Now pour in the water and powdered spices, salt and cardamom seeds. Cook until the gravy thickens.Some of the potatoes may dissolve and some of them may retain the shape.

While the gravy is cooking, shallow-fry the lentil cakes in hot ghee or oil. Drain and add them to the gravy when it is somewhat thick. Remember that the cakes will absorb liquid; you may have to add some more water if the gravy dries up.

Remove the whole spices before serving.

Thank you.


  1. I'd love this recipe! I made something vaguely similar last year ( and I thing it was one of my favorite recipe of the blog ^_^ I'll try your recipe asap!

  2. What a wonderful idea! Always loved lentils but never thought I could serve them in small cakes like that... The gravy also seems tasty and healthy, I got to bookmark this receipt and try it! 1+

  3. Awesome ! Perfect Dhokar Dalna ! I am from Calcutta, so you know how much I loved this post :) The consistency of gravy - the shape Of Dhoka everything so good :)

    1. Rumela, thank you so much for your encouragement! The matter of fact is that although I've been in Bengal many times, and eaten dhokar dalna several times, I can't remember any of the experiences! So I really had to scratch my head in order to formulate the recipe, what to speak of shaping the patties! I had a couple of trials and errors, too. Actually, I used this gravy for chenna dalna first.

  4. My favourite. And yes, I will sit on the floor ....
    Thanks Lakshmi

  5. Love this!! I have made dhokla before but never anything from bengali cuisine! Thanks for the recipe Lakshmi. Looking forward to trying it out!

  6. FoodGeekGrazeSeptember 23, 2015

    i suppose i am gujarati at heart, but this is only because i have made and enjoyed dhokla (even spinach dhokla has found a place in my world). dhokar, i do not know. dhokar dalna, i do not know. chenna dalna, i do not know. the variety, chola boot, i do not know. you make me google and get hungry. the way you feed my tummy, my mind, and my happy is beyond. thank you, lakshmi~

  7. I'm from South India and this is something very new to me. I'm amazed by the simplicity if this recipe and the rich natural color. Will try this very soon.Thank you for a wonderful recipe.

  8. Wow! This curry looks super yum and full of gorgeous flavors! :)

    1. Thanks, Anupama. I can't believe you live in Helsinki! Went to your blog and learnt :-)

  9. Hey Lakshmi, I added one comment before but for some reason it didn't get posted. The word is Dhoka, not Dhokar. The R means the dalna is made with dhoka. :) My mother adds roasted jeera-coriander-red chili powder to the doka and also hing. She makes it a little spicy. You can also start with whole garam masala+bay leaf+whole jeera as tadka and then add jeera+ginger paste+red chili powder. You can also skip the tomatoes sometimes for a variety. At the end ghee and garama masala paste. Heavenly. If you have access to green chili, add few of them as well. Dalna tastes usually a bit sweet, so you can add a pinch of sugar. I made it once and it was a disaster. the dhokas fell apart in the oil. Maa makes it perfect.

    1. Thanks, Soma, for correcting the spelling. Thanks also for your mom’s recipe. It is perfect. I forgot to mention sugar because I don’t use it at the moment – out of tongue, out of mind.

    2. problem. I skip it most of times as well.

  10. Wow, nice combination. I simply love this. Thanks for the share.

    Catering Services in Tambaram

  11. hi Lakshmi this is very amazing, I have a great like to taste!