Learn how to make Dal Makhani ~ Rich and buttery lentil curry cooked in a mildly spiced creamy onion and tomato gravy
Bombay-Goa highway, few hungry students, time well past the lunch hours, speeding bikes at 100 kms per hour, hot and sizzling afternoon… With few ten rupees notes stuck in our pocket we obviously didn’t dare to enter some plush and expensive restaurants with swanky ambience and attentive maitre d’ to greet us with fake smile plastered on his face that didn’t reach his eyes.
We took a detour to one of the small eat-out joints where you can’t expect to see plush chairs and tables in an air conditioned room with soothing music playing in the background. Here you will hear blaring sound of Bollywood music and see one small shed which is a cooking area with tandoor (earthen oven half buried in ground) in one corner and huge gas burners with large cast iron sauce pans and kadai or woks bubbling delicious food with most amazing aroma that tickled your nose even from hundreds of meters away. In an open air, the coir woven wooden cots and a big wooden plank served as a seating and table arrangements. Then came our maitre d’, a small boy in a blue checks knickers and vest who greeted us by slapping a big steel tumbler of water on the rickety table. When we asked for the menu, the little boy started rattling off without pausing for breath… With some training the boy surely could give Shankar Mahadevan run for his money with his own album called ‘Dhaba Breathless’ ;) Within few minutes we were served tandoori roties, red onion and green chilli in a big Thali and array of curries filled in generous sized bowls. It didn’t take very long for us to lick the plate clean while the Daler Mehendi sang away ‘Bolo Ta Ra Ra’ in the background.
Yes my friends, I am talking about a Dhaba, which is a small road side restaurant offering quick service to truck drivers and people like me who can go on and on with my love affair with Dhaba food. Originally located on major highways, where they were supposed to cater to truck drivers on long distance travels, these dhabas have now become a popular option with students, professionals and even families. For students like us Dhaba was a god sent gift which not only served delicious food but also pocket friendly.
One Punjabi food I always loved is Dal Makhani, a celebratory dish enriched with butter and cream. The whole urad dal and red kidney beans simmered in creamy gravy of butter, onion, tomatoes and spices with a liberal dose of cream is something to die for. Butter, spices and cream??? Oh!!! Did I hear some grumblings from my weight conscious friends? You can substitute the cream with yogurt and reduce the amount of butter to make healthier version of Dal Makhani, but then it wouldn’t be a luscious Dal Makani. Whenever I feel like indulging and forget about my expanding waistline, the first dish to cross my mind is this Dal Makhani. If you could pack warmth, memories and comfort into a bowl, this would be it! Slow cooked dal softened with a generous dash of cream and slab of butter, served with tandoori naan or jeera rice, this meal is the perfect mood elevator.
My search for the origins and history of Dal Makhani lead me into very interesting story. It is believed to be the brainchild of Kundan Lal Gujral, founder of Moti Mahal chain of restaurants, who came up with the lip smacking recipes in a bid to make his ingredients last longer. Did you notice that I mentioned recipes, and not just recipe?! Well, this is the same man who introduced the makhani gravy that we are quite familiar with when we talk about Butter Chicken and it’s the same idea that revolutionised the way humble dal was cooked. The idea was triggered off when he invented the buttery gravy to serve the drying chicken tikkas hanging on the seekhs above the tandoor waiting to be ordered but would sometimes dry out in the absence of a refrigerator in the olden days. He came up with the brilliant idea of simmering the chicken in a luscious gravy of tomatoes, butter, cream and some spices to help them retain moisture, which gave birth to the much fabled Butter Chicken Curry. He applied the same recipe with his black urad dal, and gave birth to Dal Makhani too around the same time. Today Dal Makhani is not only a household name in the Indian subcontinent, but has proudly made its presence felt in the world culinary map.
As per the legends, Kundan Lal Gujaral was working in Mukhey da Dhaba run by Mokha Singh in Peshawar during pre-independence time in the '40s. When Mokha Singh's health deteriorated, he eventually sold his shop to Gujral who renamed it as Moti Mahal. Post partition, Gujaral migrated to Delhi and carried on the legacy to establish Moti Mahal as the food institution we know today. Sabut urad (whole black lentils) served with hot tandoori rotis was a speciality of West Pakistan, which Gujaral brought along with him as he crossed the national frontiers and included it in his dhaba menu. However, the turning point for the traditional dal preparation, what now we call Dal Makhani, came about when Gujaral mixed cream and tomatoes (as a souring agent) to the dal as traditionally no Punjabi dal recipes uses cream or tomatoes before. Even if they did require a souring agent, it’s always been yogurt, not tomatoes, added to the dish. So, if you are a fan of Dal Makhani, then you have to thank Kundan Lal Gujral! (Source: Wiki)
Dal Makhani's popularity is due in part to its versatility in a meal: the rich vegetarian dish can be served as a main meal, included as part of a buffet (thali), or used as an accompaniment to a meal. In India, soups and curries with a red or yellow lentil base are an important staple, however, due to Dal Makhani's rich texture and lengthy preparation process, it makes an appearance on homemade thalis for special occasions. The traditional preparation of dal makhani involves a series of time-consuming procedures, which can take up to 24 hours to complete. With the availability of modern cooking equipment, namely electric pressure cookers and slow cookers, the preparation time of the dish has reduced significantly to 2–3 hours. Living in a fast paced world, I use my trusty stove top pressure cooker to cook the dals and let it simmer in butter rich onion and tomato gravy for half an hour or more depending on how much time or patience I have. But whenever I cook this creamy delightful dal, I make sure I cook enough to have leftovers for the next two days I find the flavours much better as all the ingredients blend well and mature after 24 hours of cooking. So I highly recommend to make extra quantity of Dal Makhani as it is not everyday you get to sit down to make the most delectable dish!
Dal Makhani (Rich and buttery lentil curry cooked in a mildly spiced creamy onion and tomato gravy)
Prep Time: 10-15 mins (excluding soaking time)
Soaking Time: At least 8 hours (preferably overight)
Cooking Time: 30-45 mins
Recipe Level: Intermediate
Spice Level: Low to Medium
Serves: 5-7 people
Shelf Life: Up to 3 days in refrigerator
Serving Suggestion: With Basmati rice or with Indian flat breads like tandoori roti, naan or chapatti.
1½ cups Sabut Urad/Whole Black Lentils
¾ cup Rajma/Red Kidney Beans
2 medium Onions, peeled and finely chopped
2 large Tomatoes, finely chopped
2 tsp Ginger-Garlic Paste
1-2 Green Chillies, slit (Adjust as per taste)
2-3 tbsp Coriander Leaves, finely chopped
¼ - ½ cup Fresh Cream or 1 cup Yogurt, whisked
2 + 1 tbsp Butter (Adjust as per taste)
Salt to taste
1 Bay Leaf
½ + ½ tsp Turmeric Powder
2 tsp Coriander Powder
1 tsp Kashmiri Chilli Powder (adjust as per taste)
1 tsp Jeera/Cumin Seed Powder
½ - 1 tsp Anaar Daana Powder (Pomegranate seed powder) or Amchur Powder (Dry mango powder)
1 tsp Garam Masala
1 tbsp Kasuri Methi/Dry Fenugreek Leaves (optional, but recommended)
1 tbsp Oil
1 tbsp Butter
1 tsp Jeera/Cumin Seeds
¼ tsp Hing/Asafoetida
- Wash and soak whole urad dal and rajma beans in 5 cups of water overnight. Next day drain the lentils and pressure cook with 4½ cups of water with ½ tsp turmeric powder for about 3 whistles or 15 minutes (approx). Let the pressure release completely before opening the lid. Cooked dal should feel soft to touch and easy to break when pressed between fingers. Strain the water and keep it aside. Lightly mash the lentils with a help of a back of the ladle or a masher and keep it aside until needed.
- While the lentils are cooking, peel and finely chop the onions. Finely chop the tomatoes, slit the green chillies and keep it aside until needed. If using fresh ginger-garlic paste, peel about 1 inch ginger and 5-6 large cloves of garlic and roughly chop them. With a help of a pestle and mortar, crush the ginger and garlic with a pinch of salt to paste. Keep it aside until needed.
Proceed to cook:
- Melt 1 tbsp of butter and 1 tbsp of oil in a heavy bottomed pan on a medium flame. Once the butter melts, add cumin seeds and hing.
- When the cumin seeds start to splutter, add slit green chillies and ginger-garlic paste and fry for around 30 seconds.
- Add finely chopped onions, ¼ tsp salt, 1 tsp suagr and sauté them over a medium heat for around 2-3 minutes till they turn golden brown. Salt helps to speed up the cooking and sugar helps in caramelising the onions.
- Add coriander powder, cumin powder chilli powder, turmeric and crushed kasuri methi and sauté it for a minute or so till you get nice aroma.
- Mix in finely chopped tomatoes, pomegranate seed powder and sauté it for around 3-4 minutes or until tomatoes turn pulpy and release their juice.
- Mix the cooked dal with about 2-3 cups of water (use the reserved dal water also). Add remaining butter, salt to taste and mix well.
- Cover the pan and cook on a medium-low heat for about 15-20 minutes till the gravy starts to thicken. I have found that the more time you cook the dal, tastier it is to eat. Adjust the seasoning as per your preference. Make sure you stir the dal half way through to prevent it from burning. Add little more water if you find it too thick.
- Mix in the cream or yogurt, garam masala and cook again for another 5-10 minutes on a low heat.
- Finally, add finely chopped coriander leaves and mix well. Cover and let it rest for 10-15 minutes for the flavours to blend and mature.
- Serve this delicious buttery Dal Makani with Tandoori naan/roti or with some Jeera rice and enjoy!
- Soaking the dals overnight helps in speeding up their cooking time. So make sure you soak them for at least 6-8 hours (preferably overnight).
- Adjust the amount of butter and fresh cream as per your taste and waist demands! :)
- You can substitute the cream with yogurt and reduce the amount of butter to make healthier version of Dal Makhani, but then it wouldn’t be a luscious Dal Makani.
- Whenever I cook this creamy delightful dal, I make sure I cook enough to have leftovers for the next two days I find the flavours much better as all the ingredients blend well and mature after 24 hours of cooking. So I highly recommend to make extra quantity of Dal Makhani as it is not every day you get to sit down to make the most delectable dish!