Slow-Cooked Creamy Black Lentils with Whole Spices
Mother is maa, and to call this Punjabi curry “Mother’s Lentils” signifies the importance of the dish. There are as many legume and spice combinations as there are cooks in northwestern India, when it comes to Maa di dal. This version makes liberal use of cream and clarified butter, along with simple spices and herbs, and allows the natural creaminess of the cooked black lentils to shine. I often serve it as a first course with baskets of either store-bought or homemade naan, cut into wedges.
I often use canned red kidney beans for convenience, after draining them and rinsing off the gelatinous, salty brine.
Coarsely mashing the kidney beans (use a potato masher or the back of a cooking spoon) provides a nutty texture to the curry and thickens it a bit without any need to use flour.
Total Timeunder 2 hours
OccasionCasual Dinner Party
Recipe Coursehot appetizer
Dietary Considerationhot appetizer
Taste and Texturecreamy, garlicky, herby, hot & spicy, nutty, savory
- 1 cup whole black lentils (sabud urad), picked over for stones
- ½ cup yellow split peas (chana dal), picked over for stones
- 8 medium-size cloves garlic
- 2 lengthwise slices fresh ginger (each 2 inches long, 1 inch wide, and 1/8 inch thick)
- 2 to 4 fresh green Thai, cayenne, or serrano chiles, to taste, stems removed
- 4 green, white, or black cardamom pods
- 2 fresh or dried bay leaves
- 2 cinnamon sticks (each 3 inches long)
- 4 tablespoons Ghee or unsalted butter
- 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
- 1 cup finely chopped red onion
- 1 cup crushed tomatoes or Tomato Sauce, canned or homemade
- 2 teaspoons coarse kosher or sea salt
- ½ teaspoon cayenne (ground red pepper)
- 1 cup cooked red kidney beans, coarsely mashed (see Notes)
- ½ cup heavy cream
- 2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh cilantro leaves and tender stems
Place the lentils and split peas in a large saucepan. Fill the pan halfway with water and rinse the legumes by rubbing them between your fingertips. The water will become cloudy. Drain this water. Repeat three or four times, until the water remains relatively clear; drain. Now add 6 cups water and bring to a boil, uncovered, over medium heat. Skim off and discard any foam that forms on the surface.
While the water is coming to a boil, combine the garlic, ginger, and chiles in a food processor. Pulse until the ingredients are minced.
As soon as the water is boiling and you have discarded the foam, add the minced blend and the cardamom pods, bay leaves, and cinnamon sticks. Lower the heat to medium, cover the pan, and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the lentils swell up and soften and the split peas are fall-apart tender, about 1 hour.
While the legumes are cooking, heat 2 tablespoons of the ghee in a medium-size skillet over medium-high heat. Sprinkle in the cumin seeds and cook until they sizzle, turn reddish brown, and smell nutty, 5 to 10 seconds. Add the onion and stir-fry until it is light brown around the edges, 3 to 5 minutes.
Reduce the heat to medium-low and stir in the tomatoes, salt, and cayenne. Simmer the sauce, partially covered, stirring occasionally, until some of the ghee starts to separate on the surface, 6 to 10 minutes. Set the skillet aside until the legumes are ready.
Once the legumes are tender, stir in the sauce, the kidney beans, and the cream. Pour 1 cup water into the skillet and scrape the bottom to deglaze it, releasing any sauce and spices. Add this to the legumes and stir once or twice.
Cover the pan and simmer over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the flavors mingle, 5 to 10 minutes.
Stir in the remaining 2 tablespoons ghee and the cilantro, and serve.
NotesI often use canned red kidney beans for convenience, after draining them and rinsing off the gelatinous, salty brine. Coarsely mashing the kidney beans (use a potato masher or the back of a cooking spoon) provides a nutty texture to the curry and thickens it a bit without any need to use flour.
2008 Raghavan Iyer