10 January 2011

"Perfect" dal makhani, at last!

Dal makhani is one of those dishes. A much-loved Punjabi dish of whole black lentils (known as black gram or urad dal) cooked in a delectable sauce of tomato, spices and LOTS of cream and butter, dal makhani (makhani actually means butter in Hindi) is one of those dishes that I consistently order at Indian restaurants and love, but that I've never been able to make to my own satisfaction at home. My favorite version is that served as an accompaniment at Washington DC's Indique, one of my favorite Indian restaurants in the world. I'd been trying and trying in vain to replicate the same flavor, the same sinfully rich taste, the same lentils that just melt in your mouth. And then last night...success at last!

The magic recipe comes from Sanjay Thumma, the delightful Hyderabad-based "VahChef" who is making a name for himself in the world of cooking videos via his website VahRehVah.com. It turns out that Thumma did a stint at the world-renowned Bukhara Restaurant at the ITC Maurya Hotel in Delhi, where the dal makhani is so famous that they've started selling it to grocery stores. So Thumma knows the recipe for the famous "Dal Bukhara" as they call it there, and being the nice guy that he is, he shares it on one of his videos! I should have known, considering that all of Thumma's recipes that I've tried have been wonderful. Thumma is a great host, funny and really endearing, but the recipes as written on his site are not always the most precise or logical. So I adapted his version a bit, multiplied for a party we were having and hoped for the best.

The name of the recipe says it all...it was perfect! Just like the version at Indique. The secret is really in the generous amount of butter and cream (don't even try to make a healthy version of this, it won't be the same!) and the long, slow cooking process. If you are like me and love dal makhani or if you haven't tried it and want a rich and creamy lentil dish that will wow your guests, try it! Don't be intimidated by the long list of ingredients, you can save time by measuring out and setting aside all the spices in advance. Urad dal/black gram, pictured above, can be purchased in Indian groceries or perhaps the international section of large supermarkets. This recipe makes a huge batch, but can easily be halved.

"PERFECT" DAL MAKHANI (adapted from Sanjay Thumma)
Serves 10-12

300 grams (1 1/3 cups) urad dal/black gram
5-6 cups water
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon canola or vegetable oil
2 tablespoons cumin seeds
1 stick cinnamon
4 bay leaves
5-6 whole cardamoms
10-12 cloves
2 tablespoons garlic paste
2 tablespoons ginger paste
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
500 grams (about 16 fluid ounces) store-bought tomato puree
1 tablespoon (or more!) chili powder
1 tablespoon coriander powder
Salt to taste
60 grams (4 tablespoons) butter (yes, you read correctly!!!)
Water (2 cups total)
1 tablespoon fenugreek seeds, ground and powdered in a coffee grinder
1/2 cup crème fraiche or heavy whipping cream
Sugar to taste
Chopped coriander leaves

1. Cook the urad dal with the water and baking soda (the baking soda apparently softens and speeds up the cooking of dry lentils and beans - a tip that I learned from my husband - who knew?). I did this in a pressure cooker and it took 15 minutes. You can also do it the conventional way. Make sure you have enough water for the dal to cook in and not burn (as I once did!). Reserve any remaining liquid once the dal has cooked.

2. While the dal is cooking, heat the oil in a large pot. Add the cumin seeds along with the cinnamon stick, bay leaves, cardamom pods and cloves.

3. Once the cumin seeds pop and the other spices release their fragrance, add the garlic and ginger pastes along with the turmeric. Cook for one minute.

3. Add the tomato puree, stir well, cover the pot and bring to a boil. Then add the chili powder, coriander powder and salt to taste. Cook for a few minutes more until the sauce has thickened.

4. Add the butter. Once it has melted, add the reserved liquid from the dal or alternately about a cup of water.

5. Add the cooked lentils and another cup of water along with the fenugreek powder. Stir well and bring to a boil.

6. Cover, reduce to very low heat and simmer for about 30-35 minutes, stirring from time to time to ensure that the lentils don't burn or stick to the bottom.

7. Add the cream, salt and/or sugar to taste and stir well.

8. Finish with chopped coriander. Serve hot with rice or chapatis, parathas or naan. Soooo good!!!

9. Work out the next day :-)


  1. This sounds really really yummy.

    I always make dal makhani the 'slow way', and use clarified butter (ghee). Will try this recipe.

    The 60 grams of butter is FRIGHTENING!

  2. I think this is why I've never tried to make it at home--as long as it's from a restaurant, I can pretend it's not quite as bad for me as it actually is. But your recipe and instructions are really good, so maybe I'll just have to try, finally :) Looks delish, Ramya--I'm sure it was a huge hit at your party.

  3. My sister says that if she had to eat only one thing for the rest of her life, it'd be dal!!!! This recipe looks great! I'll have to pass it on to her!

  4. That must be why mine never tastes as good--not enough butter and cream! I will definitely give this a try. Looks fabulous.

  5. Thanks for the recipe, I think I ll try this one. I love dal makhni too, I tried to make it before but it didn't turn so delicious as I expected :)

  6. Atieno, Resha and Angela - yeah it's pretty scary, the amount of fat in this. But it's sooo worth it! That said, I'm going to a 2-hour zumba class today to assuage my guilty conscience.

    Tiffany - please do pass the recipe along to your sis!

    Medeja - I hope you try it out and enjoy it!

  7. Thanks. I definitely will write how was it after I try it :)

  8. Hi Ramya, thanks for the recipe, we tried it last night! We also always order dal makhani at restaurants but had never tried cooking it ourselves. Coincidentally I had urad dal on hand, though only because I thought I had bought black beans. Your photo of the whole, uncooked dal made me realize that's what they were--at least I *think* so, absolutely no info on the local Indonesian packaging! We don't have a pressure cooker, and ended up cooking the dal (first alone in water, then in the sauce) for a looooooooong time, hours in fact. I could only find whole fenugreek and we don't have a spice grinder so I tried crushing it in a mortar and pestle, but definitely didn't quite achieve a powder. We were surprised how well it turned out--thanks for the recipe and inspiration! :)

  9. Liana, I'm so happy that you tried the recipe and that it came out well! The original recipe actually called for dried fenugreek leaves (called kasuri methi in Hindi), not sure if that's available in Indonesia but if so you could try with that instead of the seeds, since grinding them without a grinder must have been tough! What are you doing in Indonesia anyway? Must be amazing!