While dal, a general word for dried lentils, pulses, and beans, as well as the endless variety of cooked dishes in which they are prepared, is an everyday staple across the Indian subcontinent, dal makhani is, according to chef Maunika Gowardhan, “In a league of its own.” It’s mostly saved for weddings and other celebrations, and not just because the longer it cooks, the better it becomes. It’s also incredibly rich—makhani means “butter” in Hindi.
Niki Segnit perfectly sums up the spirit of the dish in Side Kitchen, when she describes it as “the dal equivalent of Joël Robuchon’s famously opulent pomme de terre purée, except you don’t even have to pretend you want anything else on the side. him.” Meera Sodha reckons it’s “one of the best dishes in the world,” and all you need is a little patience and lots of ghee.
The Krishna Dutta version uses five different types of dal. Felicity Cloake Miniatures
Dal makhani requires urad, sometimes written as urid, dal and, I made this mistake so you don’t have to, not everything labeled as such is suitable. These small black beans are available whole, split (as used by chef Vivek Singh in his recipe at Spice At Home), and split and shelled, at which point they are known as white lentils, which are never used for black dal. . That might seem obvious to you, especially if you’re lucky enough to have grown up with this stuff, but looking at the endless beanbags on Drummond Street behind London’s Euston Station wasn’t for me, so I offer my own La stupid as a moral story. Go for the things that look like little gray pebbles in the bag.
Krishna Dutta’s gloriously comprehensive Dal cookbook includes a recipe for a Kashmiri-style dal makhani, contributed by an 80-year-old man she describes as a “pious Hindu,” using five different types of dal: urad, channa , masoor, waxy toor. and moong – as an “auspicious combination”. The texture is much more varied than those using just one type, but delicious as it is, with urad dal being only one sixth of the total. It’s not terribly black or, in fact, creamy, which, auspicious or not, seems like a shame.
Maunika Gowardhan’s Dal makhani: ‘No recipe should skimp on cream and butter, and neither should mine!’
Both Gowardhan and Romy Gill, whose gloriously rich dal makhani really impressed me when I visited her restaurant in Thornbury last year, use a mixture of urad dal and red kidney beans. Gowardhan explains that “urad dal is a lentil that thrives on slow cooking. ; the longer it cooks, the richer the dal makhani is.” One Delhi restaurant simmers it for days, but without the luxury of time, “the addition of a small amount of rajma or beans will give the makhani its rich texture and also a bit of color.”
They actually give the finished dish a better color, but neither my testers nor I think they add much more, so I’m going to leave them out. However, if you have some dried beans lying around that need to be consumed (dried beans and legumes are best used within six months of purchase, according to Dutta; the older they are, the longer they take to soften), by all means, use them in place of some of the urad dal.
I like Gowardhan’s suggestion of mashing the cooked dal; in the absence of 40 hours to serve the dish, this is a useful shortcut to thicken the sauce.
While Dutta, Gill, Sodha and Gowardhan cook their beans separately, Singh and Will Bowlby, head chef at Kricket in London, simmer them with onions, chillies and spices. I think this makes them difficult to skim and gives the onion a rather slimy consistency, but the subtle, smoky sweetness that Anjali Pathak’s black cardamom and cinnamon give the beans in her book Secrets from My Indian Family Kitchen, yes it attracts However, if you don’t have them, don’t worry, they are by no means essential.
Romy Gill’s dal makhani uses a mixture of urad dal and red kidney beans.
This is not a dish that calls for hundreds of different spices; in fact, Sodha uses only chili powder, but warm garam masala, as used by Gill, Gowardhan and Dutta, works well with the richness of the cream, along with cumin for an earthy touch and coriander for flavor, both popular ingredients in the recipes I try.
The secret ingredient in Gill’s dal, which proves to be a landslide winner among my testers, is methi, or fenugreek leaves, which she says is a typical Punjabi ingredient. They add a haunting, smoky, almost musty flavor that takes me back to India. Try to find them, if you can; Asian supermarkets carry them, and they are typically stocked in the specialty ingredients or world foods aisles of large supermarkets.
Dutta’s recipe is unique in that it does not contain onion or garlic, which are off-limits to devout Hindus (hence asafoetida, often used to impart an offsetting, salty note instead). Everyone else adds copious amounts of the latter, along with ginger, and Gowardhan, Singh, Sodha, Bowlby and Pathak also start their dals with slow-cooked browned onions, giving them a sweetness corresponding to the beans and spices. I would suggest chopping them, though, rather than slicing; the tangle of the former spoils the smoothness of the sauce for me.
Will Bowlby simmers his dal with onions, chillies and spices.
Fresh chilies are also common: chop finely if you like it hot; cut them up and remove them from the dal before serving if you prefer a softer result.
Tomatoes: yes or no?
Only Dutta omits them entirely; the rest of the recipes split pretty evenly between fresh fruit and puree; we all prefer the latter, and not just because decent fresh tomatoes are so hard to come by in the UK for most of the year. The rich, deep, cooked flavor of the mash works best with earthy lentils and cream.
“The reason I say this dish is for special occasions,” Gowardhan writes, “is the copious amounts of butter and cream. No recipe should skimp on it, and neither is mine!” Words of wisdom: For my greedy crowd, Dutta’s yogurt just doesn’t cut it. Sodha, oddly enough, uses whole milk, simmering it to a sticky sweetness, and copious amounts of butter, but perhaps unsurprisingly, the double whammy of double cream and butter or ghee favored by Bowlby, Singh and Gill turns out to be be the most popular. You can scale back on the latter, if you like, but it seems like a shame: there are thousands of great recipes for everyday dals (in fact, Dutta’s book is chock full of them), but this isn’t one of them.
Perfect dal makhani
Homework 15 min, plus soak time
Cook 50 minutes
It serves 4-6 as main or secondary
200g urad dalwhole and shelled
1 cinnamon stick (optional)
2 black cardamom pods (optional)
5 tablespoons ghee or butter
2 large onionspeeled and finely chopped
20g fresh gingerpeeled and grated
5 garlic clovespeeled and shredded
2 green chiliesslit (or finely chopped, if you want your dal spicier)
1 teaspoon garam masala
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
½ teaspoon Kashmiri red chili powder
tomato puree 75g
150ml double cream
2 tablespoons dried fenugreek leaves
fresh coriander (optional)
Soak the dal overnight, then rinse well and drain. Cover with three times as much cold water and bring to a boil. Skim, then add the cinnamon stick and cardamom pods, if using. Simmer until the beans are soft enough to easily squash against the edge of the pan, topping up the water if necessary, because they always need to be covered (this will probably take 45 minutes to an hour).
Fry the onions in ghee.
Meanwhile, melt four tablespoons of ghee in a large skillet over medium heat, then gently sauté the onions until soft and golden.
Add the ginger, garlic, and green chillies, cook for another minute or so, then add all the dry spices except the fenugreek leaves, and cook, stirring, for a few more minutes.
Add ginger, garlic and chili.
Lower the heat and first add the tomato puree and then, little by little, the cream and fenugreek. Put out the fire.
When the dal is ready, drain it over a bowl, conserving the water, then mash it so that part of the dal is flattened and part remains whole. Stir all of the dal into the pan with the sauce, then over low heat, add enough cooking water to bring it to the desired consistency; I like mine quite thick, rather than soupy.
Felicity Cloake’s perfect dal makhani.
Season to taste and serve with a sprinkling of fresh cilantro, if you like the stuff.
Dal makhani – heart attack in health food clothes or the most delicious thing you can make with lentils? How do you make your own and whose version is the best you’ve tried?
This article contains affiliate links, which means we may earn a small commission if a reader clicks through and makes a purchase. All of our journalism is independent and in no way influenced by any advertiser or commercial initiative. By clicking on an affiliate link, you agree that third party cookies will be set. More information.