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Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onion, and season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion starts to soften, about 3 minutes. Stir in the garlic, ginger, curry powder and cumin. Cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 1 minute longer. (Alternatively, combine everything, including the spices, in a heatproof bowl and microwave on high, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 4-5 minutes.) Scrape the mixture into a 4- to 7-quart slow cooker.
Add the lentils, coconut milk, water and bay leaf. Season with salt and pepper. Cover and cook until the lentils are tender (they should be slightly firm but not crunchy), about 5-6 hours on low (it takes 6 hours in my KitchenAid 6 quart model); do not use high heat. Squeeze in the juice from 1/2 lime, and season with salt and pepper to taste.
Serve the dal as-is as a side dish, or turn it into a full meal by serving it with rice and/or naan bread and sautéed greens. Let people garnish their dishes with cilantro or mint, toasted cashews and/or mango chutney.