Creamy Dal Makhani
I refer to this dish as “gateway” lentils, because once you taste it, you will fall in love and wish for more. It’s not complicated or difficult to make, though it does require a little advance planning. However, this dal is delicious, nutritious, and comforting.
My first son was born in New Delhi in late September, which is early fall in India. Fall is the perfect time of year for rich, warming, comfort foods like this slow-cooked dal.
Dal makhani (buttery dal) quickly became one of my husband’s favourite dishes. So, it never fails to take me straight back to that moment in our lives, and the refreshing crispness in the air after a long, hot summer.
This is a terrific dish to make if you’ve never tried Indian cuisine before, as the flavours are robust, authentic, and accessible. In my experience, dal makhani is an almost universal palate pleaser.
Origins of Dal Makhani
This dish originated in India’s fertile Punjab province, where urad dal was an everyday food. After partition, ambitious migrants shared their cuisine nationwide via small restaurants and roadside stalls.
Kundan Lal Gujral, founder of the Moti Mahal restaurant chain, was perhaps most notable among these early entrepreneurs. He tweaked the recipe and popularized it nationwide.
Dal makhani is often served in tandoori (traditional grill) restaurants. There, the dal is cooked overnight in the remaining heat of the tandoor’s coals, yielding a supremely creamy dal with a smokey flavor.
The recipe I present here is my family’s favorite recipe. However, every chef, roadside stall, or tandoori joint in India has its own way of making this dish. To make matters worse, each cook swears theirs is the only “authentic” recipe.
Therefore, I have found many different versions of this recipe online, and tasted lots of variations in restaurants. Some recipes include only basic ingredients, and eliminate the onion and most of the spices. Others, like my own, are more complex.
There is really no one right way to prepare this dish. I think the best preparation probably depends on your family’s personal preferences. Having spent a lot of time in North India, my family loves the more complex mughlai spice profile I present here.
However, if your family’s tastes are different, feel free to adjust the recipe to your liking. The essential bits are:
- Cooking the lentils properly, and
- Reducing the tomato sauce completely prior to adding the cooked lentils to your dish.
The seasoning depends on your personal taste. The two essential spices are cayenne pepper and cumin. Think of the others as delicious, but optional.
Tips and Tricks
Cleaning. Depending on where you live and where you purchase your lentils, urad dal can have a bits of stone or twigs mixed in with it. So, taking the time to clean your lentils is very important. I prefer to do this in a sunlit space. In India, the cleaning is often done outside in the courtyard to take advantage of the natural sunlight, which makes it easy to spot the debris!
Soaking. Soaking lentils overnight is an extra step which requires a little forethought. Do not be tempted to skip this step, however, or your lentils will not cook properly.
Reducing Tomatoes. Reducing the tomatoes to a thick sauce is perhaps the most cumbersome step in the recipe, because it takes a bit of time and patience. It is, however, essential that you take the time to thoroughly reduce the tomatoes, as they impart a complexity of flavor that is critical to the success of the dish.
Stirring. After adding the cooked dal to the tomato mixture, you will want to stir regularly to prevent the starch in the dal from sticking to the bottom of the pot. As you stir, press the dal against the sides of the pan to crush some of the lentils. While the final dish is not a puree, it is certainly nicer when many of the lentils are crushed and creamy.
I hope your family enjoys dal makhani as much as mine does. Bon appétit!