Dal Makhani (Indian Butter Lentils)

If you like Indian food and you haven’t heard of this dish before, you may not have been paying attention. You’re likely to see this on the menu at many Indian restaurants and you also might recognize a close cousin (also very popular)–murgh makhani, a.k.a. butter chicken. This a vegetarian take on the same general dish–slowly simmered lentils (a.k.a. dal) and beans in a spiced, tomato curry enriched with a generous helping of cream and butter.

While this Punjab curry is strongly spiced, like its chicken counterpart, the richness of the dish counteracts the heat a good bit, making it a good candidate even for those who might be timid around Indian cuisine. There’s a classically spiced backbone with notes of ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, and cloves, and yet the slowly simmered lentils combined with the generous cream/butter combo yields a final product that has an almost contradictory sumptuous, smooth, almost velvety mouthfeel. I don’t tend to call many an Indian dish “comfort food” (but man do I love the stuff), but this one definitely fits the bill.

I had many inspirations for this recipe.

  • 11 cups water
  • 2 cups urad dal (a.k.a black gram…preferably whole. I used split because its what I had handy)
  • 2/3 cup rajma (kidney beans)
  • 8 Tbsp butter (or ghee)
  • hing (Asafoetida)
  • 2 tsp cumin
  • 2 cinnamon stick
  • 10 cloves
  • 4 green cardamom pods
  • 2 black cardamom
  • curry leaves (or Bay leaves)
  • fennel seeds
  • 2 shallots
  • 2-3 chilis
  • 2 Tbsp ginger
  • 2 Tbsp garlic
  • 6 tomatoes
  • chili powder (to taste)
  • 2 Tbsp ground coriander
  • turmeric
  • salt
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • cilantro

In a large pot (ultimately, the pot you intend to cook everything in. I used my handy dandy Dutch oven), mix the lentils, kidney beans, and water, allowing it to soak overnight.

On the next day, roughly 5 hours prior to when you intend to eat, heat the lentils to a boil and then drop to a low simmer, covering and letting this go for about 5 hours. Skim any scum/foam that accumulates on top (most should reveal itself during the first ~15-30 minutes) and stir periodically, moreso towards the end of cooking time to prevent any sticking/burning on the bottom of the pot.

In a separate pan, heat some (1-2 Tbsp) of your butter/ghee. Then, sprinkle in the hing and fry the whole spices (cumin, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, curry leaves, and fennel seeds) until they begin to perfume (~1-2 minutes). Then, add in the finely diced shallots and peppers, cooking those for about 10 minutes, until they begin to brown a bit.

Very finely dice (or use a food processor) equal amounts of garlic and ginger to form garlic-ginger paste. Add this into the mix, stirring and scraping for about a minute (be careful–this can burn easily).

Finally, puree the tomatoes and pour this into the pot, taking the opportunity to deglaze (scrape up any browned bits). Stir in the remaining spices and simmer for 10-15 minutes to cook off some of the liquid.

At this point, the dal should be done cooking and the same goes for the gravy. So mash up the dal a bit (it helps to thicken things and adds to the cream texture), and then pour the sauce into the dal. Give things a good stir to incorporate and simmer this for 10 minutes more.

Finally, add the cream and remaining butter, simmering for 5-10 minutes more. Taste the mixture and correct the seasoning as you see fit (salt, chili powder, etc–all that cream and butter will dramatically tone some of those elements down). Finally, garnish with chopped cilantro.

I like to serve with spiced rice and paratha, but you can also have it alongside other vegetarian Indian dishes for a great meal. Enjoy!

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6 Responses to “Dal Makhani (Indian Butter Lentils)”

  1. Isabel Says:

    love your recipes Mike….I do not see any pepper in the list of ingredients…..did you forget to add it?

  2. mike Says:

    Isabel–I labelled them as chilis (I missed them in reading over the list, too though). 2 or 3 jalapeƱos (or serranos, or whatever suits your palette) should do the trick. Hope this helps!

  3. Jan Says:

    Looks delish!

  4. Dana Zia Says:

    I just bought some dal yesterday! This looks so good it seriously has me drooling! I will be making it soon. Thanks Mike! I would love to eat at your table.

  5. sweetbird Says:

    I’ve been looking for a great dal recipe.

    Bookmarked!

  6. Dmitriy Says:

    I like the idea of pureeing the sauce in the blender, like you recommended in the Butter Chicken recipe. I used a bit less butter and cream, I don’t think it hurts the taste. the recipe (both of them) worked great.

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