Passionate about exploring the world's culinary diversity, & using the very best seasonal, local ingredients.
September 13, 2017
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!
1 red onion, thinly sliced and soaked in water for at least 30 minutes, to accompany (optional)
Carefully pick over the lentils, removing any small stones or debris and discarding them. Rinse in several changes of water and drain. Place in a medium-sized bowl and cover with 5-7 cm water. Leave to soak overnight, or for at least 8 hours.
Drain beans and place in a pressure cooker along with 8 cups of water. Seal pressure cooker, as per factory instructions, and bring to full pressure over high heat. When full pressure is reached, reduce heat to low and continue cooking for 35 minutes. Turn off heat and leave pot to de-pressurise on its own for at least 15-20 minutes.
Open pot and check lentils for doneness. When fully cooked they should be completely softened and easily mashed with a fork. Older lentils take longer to cook. So, if your beans are not yet cooked, you will want to add another cup of water to the pot and repeat the process, but cooking for only 15-20 minutes under full pressure.
Heat butter in a medium casserole placed over medium-high heat. (Be careful not to brown or burn your butter, as this will impart a bitter flavor). When butter is hot and foamy, add the whole spices and cook for 2-3 minutes, or until they give off a rich aroma.
Add the onions to the pan, reduce heat to medium, and stir continuously until onions turn a rich, golden brown.
Add the ginger and garlic paste and sauté, stirring continuously, 1-2 minutes, or until the raw fragrance is gone, being careful not to brown the garlic or ginger.
Add the green chillies. Sauté for another minute or so, and add the tomato puree, cayenne pepper powder, nutmeg powder, and salt.
Cook, stirring regularly, until the water has evaporated, the tomatoes are a shade darker, and oil starts to separate from the sauce. This step is critical. Your tomatoes ought to look just like the image below.
Add cooked lentils, along with their cooking water. Bring to a simmer and reduce heat to low, stirring regularly to prevent lentils from sticking to the bottom of the pan. Add an additional 2 cups water. Cook for an additional 30 minutes, or until the lentils have thickened and begun to disintegrate. (If lentils become overly dry or thick before they are fully cooked and viscous, add more water, as needed and continue cooking until done.)
Add salt to taste and cream. Stir to thoroughly combine and turn off heat. Sprinkle with kasoori methi, garam masala, and coriander (if using) and close the casserole immediately to trap the aromas. Allow dal to rest for about 5 minutes before serving.
Serve garnished with fresh cilantro leaves, along with plenty of fresh roti or naan, and thinly sliced red onions that have been soaked in cold water for at least 30 minutes and drained.
The longer you cook these lentils -- which are traditionally cooked overnight in the embers of coal in a hot tandoor oven -- the creamier they become. So, if you have the time (or a slow cooker) cook them low and slow. These beans also benefit from a rest and are a perfect do-ahead dish for a party. Refrigerate overnight once they are cool and reheat gently over a very slow flame.