Dal Makhani

One of my most memorable meals in India happened when I was 22 years old, backpacking through the country with my trusty Lonely Planet guide and my friend Pam. We were in Jaipur, in the heart of Rajasthan. After seeing forts and riding elephants and touring havelis and shopping for jewels, we walked down the dusty main drag looking for dinner.

We were always looking for supper at the wrong time, the hours of sightseeing and our unfashionable Canadian mealtimes conspiring to make us perpetually early at every restaurant we went to. Of course, the waiters were always too polite to tell us that, and would bob their heads with big smiles when we ordered food that wouldn't possibly ready for hours since the cook just arrived in the kitchen. They would fill our glasses with water and we would sit, waiting, more and more impatient, not realizing how ridiculous we must have looked.

This restaurant looked especially good -- nicer than the dhabas (roadside eateries) and simple lunch homes we normally ate at. White tablecloths and air conditioning, and a bright clean room. We sat and ordered our food, and waited for what seemed like hours till it arrived. 

It was the first time I'd ever eaten dal makhani (lentils cooked with butter and cream), a north Indian specialty that you often see on menus at Indian restaurants abroad. It was a revelation: the almost meaty chew of whole black urad dal and kidney beans cooked with butter and garam masala, finished with cream, impossibly rich and delicate tasting at the same time. We ate it with flaky parathas (a wholemeal flatbread) and maybe some raw onion dressed with lemon juice. 

It was so good we went back the next night to have it again. This time they had it waiting for us, the two Canadian girls who got hungry too soon.

Dal Makhani
Serves 4-5

This is a rich, creamy dish that is lovely served with steamed basmati rice or with an Indian flatbread, such as paratha. Serve it with a kachumber (raw salad of onions, tomatoes, and cucumber) on the side to add some freshness and bite.

3/4 c whole black urad dal (also called sabut urad)
1/4 c dried red kidney beans
kosher salt
2 TB grated ginger
1 TB neutral oil
3 TB butter
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 large red onion, diced
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 tsp garam masala
4 plum tomatoes, diced, or 1-1/2 c canned tomatoes with juice
up to 1 tsp red chili powder, to taste
1/4 c heavy cream, plus 2 tsp for garnish
handful of chopped cilantro

1. Put dal and kidney beans in a bowl and cover with plenty of water; allow to soak overnight (at least 10-12 hrs).

2. Drain and rinse the lentils. Put in a saucepan with 5 c water, 1 TB of the grated ginger, and a healthy pinch of salt; bring to a boil, turn down the heat to low, and cook, covered, for about an hour and a quarter, or until the dal and kidney beans are soft. (Alternatively, place in a pressure cooker and cook on high pressure for 28 minutes; bring down pressure by running the cooker under a cold tap.) Drain the lentils and beans, reserving the cooking water.

3. In another saucepan, heat oil over medium-high heat. Add the butter; when it stops frothing, add the cumin seeds. When the seeds turn brown and fragrant, add the onion and sauté until golden brown, about 4-5 minutes. Add the remaining ginger and the garlic and stir once or twice; then add the garam masala and a pinch of salt and let the spices toast for 15 seconds or so. Add the tomatoes and another pinch of salt, mashing things a bit with your spoon; allow the mixture to cook until everything is bubbly, thick, and spicy, and the oil has separated a bit from the tomatoes.

4. Add the lentils and beans along with enough of the cooking water to make a thick stew (like the consistency of a thick chowder); reserve the rest of the cooking water in case the mixture thickens too much when it cooks. (If you don't have enough cooking water, just use tap water.) Add salt to taste and allow the mixture to bubble away for about 20 minutes to allow the flavors to mingle. 

5. When you're ready to serve, add 1/4 c cream and allow the dal to simmer for 5 minutes or so; taste for salt. Serve garnished with chopped cilantro, a sprinkling of red chili powder, and a drizzle of the remaining cream.


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