This dish epitomises the taste and style of the Punjab. Every Punjabi household, restaurant, roadside eating place and street vendor makes the claim that this is a delicacy that they alone can make to perfection. I would also say it features on just about every Indian restaurant menu I have ever seen.
Known in the Punjab as maa di dal, it has a smooth velvety texture. It isn’t hot, but should have a subtle and low-key chilli hit.
The term makhani means butter and this, along with cream is what produces its texture. The black gram is another ingredient that helps give that quite voluptuous texture to this dish. However, there is a lot of butter and cream in this recipe, so be warned.
This recipe is traditionally cooked on a low flame overnight and allowed to thicken. Provided you prepare the red kidney beans correctly, you can make this dish somewhat quicker. I recommend you look at the details about these beans in our ingredients section. The fact is that these beans can be toxic if not prepared correctly.
Having said that, one of the safest ways to cook with red kidney beans is to use canned beans, as these have been cooked as part of the canning process. You could ignore all the preparatory steps, put everything, substituting canned red kidney beans, into a slow cooker and you would get a pretty good result.
What you wouldn’t get, using that method, is the subtle smoky effect from the dhungar. This adds some smoking ghee to the cooking process. What you need is a small metal bowl – around 5cm in diameter – into which you put red-hot charcoal and ghee then leave for a few minutes to smoke the dish. This technique is used quite often in dishes from the north of India. Restaurants will substitute smoked paprika for some of the chilli in their recipes to attempt the same result. Doing it properly is not hard, but does take some time and attention. The recipe below explains the technique.
Black gram, or black lentils are available from Indian grocers and some supermarkets. Make sure you get the variety with the black skin still on, because this gives the dish its characteristic colouring.
You will need to start this the day before to allow the dal to soak.
for the sauce
- 3 dried Kashmiri chillies - crumbled
- 2 tomatoes - pulp and seeds removed, coarsely chopped
- 4 cloves garlic - coarsely chopped
- 75 g unsalted butter
- 1 tsp cumin seeds
- 4 black peppercorns
- 3 cloves
- 1 blade mace
- 1 stick cinnamon - crumbled
- 3 green cardamom pods - broken open
- 1 black cardamom pod - broken open
- 1 indian bay leaf
- 1½ red onions - finely chopped
- ½ tsp ground turmeric
- ¼ tsp asafoetida powder
- 1 tsp salt
- ½ tsp garam masala
- 1 tsp dried fenugreek leaves - lightly crushed
- 150 ml pure cream
for the dhungar
- 1 small piece charcoal
- ½ tsp ghee
- Wash the red kidney beans, then soak overnight in 1½ litres of water. When soaked, drain and rinse.
- Place soaked red kidney beans in a pan, cover with water and boil for at least 30 minutes. After 30 minutes, drain and rinse the red kidney bean and replace in the pan.
- Whilst the kidney beans boil, wash the black lentils, then set aside to soak for 30 minutes.
- Add the drained black lentils, the ginger pieces and salt to the red kidney beans. Add enough water to cover by 2cm and bring to the boil. Once boiling, reduce heat to very low and simmer for two hours, stirring occasionally. Add water if needed. Remove any foam that appears. The pulses are cooked when you can break them up with your fingers.
- Drain the lentils and reserve the water. Using a masher, fork, or whisk, coarsely mash the pulses leaving most of them whole. Set aside.
for the sauce
- Place the Kashmiri chillies in a small bowl with ½ cup of water and soak for 30 minutes. Drain, and reserve the soaking water.
- Grind the tomatoes, garlic and the soaked kashmiri chillies to a smooth paste using a little of the chilli soaking water.
- Heat a deep pan over medium heat. Once heated, add the butter and once that is hot, add the cumin seeds.
- When cumin seeds sizzle, add the black peppercorns, cloves, mace, cinnamon, cardamom pods, and the bay leaf. Add the onion, and fry for five minutes, or until onion starts to colour.
- Add the tomato, garlic and chilli paste, and the turmeric and asafoetida. Mix well, and fry for three minutes, or until raw aroma has gone.
- Add the dal to the pan and one cup of the reserved water they were cooked in. Mix well, bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to very low.
- Simmer uncovered for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally to make sure that dal is not sticking to the bottom of the pan. Add a little more of reserved cooking water if needed. You want the dish to be quite thick at this stage because you will adding the cream shortly, and that will loosen the texture.
- Add the crushed fenugreek leaves and garam masala. Stir well.
- Add cream one tablespoon at a time and mix well before adding the next spoon. Mix well, and cook for a minute or so to bring dish back to a simmer. Do not allow dish to boil. Remove from heat and cover when the dish starts to simmer.
for the dhungar
- Using a set of kitchen tongs, heat the charcoal on open flame on the stove. Heat it till it gets red hot.
- Put a very small metal bowl in the middle of the dal. Place the hot charcoal in the bowl.
- Drizzle the ghee over the charcoal. The charcoal will begin to smoke immediately. Cover the pan to trap the smoke. Keep it covered for two minutes only – the longer you leave it the smokier the flavour. Remove the cover and remove the bowl carefully, using your tongs.
- Turn dal into a serving dish and stir gently. Drizzle or dollop the crème fraiche over the dish. Garnish with the red onion half-rings and coriander leaves. Serve.
- You could substitute canned red kidney beans. Ignore the overnight soaking and the 30-minute boiling stage.
- Black lentils are available from Indian grocers. Make sure you get the variety with the black skin still on, because this gives the dish its characteristic colouring.
- You could drop the smoking stage, if the smoky flavour is not to your taste. It is a very traditional technique, though.
- Heating the crème fraiche will make it easier to drizzle, if that is your preference.