Kali Dal Makhani

This recipe comes to you by request of my dear friend Heather, who, when she visited this weekend past, said to me, “Please publish your kali dal recipe. I have tried everyone else’s recipe and none of them taste as good as yours.”

So, Heather, this one is for you.

There are about a bazillion different ways to make kali dal as there are households in Northern India. There are versions that contain only whole black (also known as urad dal or black gram) lentils, versions with whole black lentils and red kidney beans, versions with whole and split black lentils, versions with whole and split black lentils and red kidney beans. and probably about fifteen other versions of kali dal besides.

My version contains whole urad dal and split, but unskinned urad. I like the texture that this creates in the finished dish–the whole lentils stay separate and unto themselves while the split ones break down and thicken the sauce a bit, giving it a velvety mouthfeel. The whole lentils have a wonderful, toothsome texture–they don’t ever really fall apart like most lentils will do, but I must warn you–they take forever to cook.

Those wee critters are tough-skinned and loath to soften, even after being soaked overnight. Even if you soak them, be prepared to simmer the troublesome beasties for at least four hours on the back burner of your stove. (Or, put them in your slow cooker and run off to work and leave them for eight hours. That should work, too.)

The way I manage it is to cook the lentils in a pressure cooker for about forty-five minutes or so. I don’t bother soaking them at all, and they still turn out perfect, though if your lentils are a bit old, they might require about ten or fifteen more minutes under high pressure to get them done.

They also soak up an inordinate amount of liquid for being such tiny legumes.

Now that I have told you how much trouble they are, you must be wondering why on earth anyone would bother to cook them at all?

Well, for one thing, they have a lot of protein and fiber, and they taste wonderful. They are earthy, delicious and satisfying, and make a bowl of steamed basmati rice sing, though in truth, they are just as comfortable being scooped up in a folded roti, poori or naan.

So that’s why I, and a whole bunch of folks in India cook kali dal, even if it does seem to take a lifetime to get the lentils to soften.

Now, if you know anything about Indian food, you may have noticed the word “makhani” in the title of this post, and you will be thinking that it translates to “black lentils with butter.”

And you are absolutely right to think so–you win a cookie.

But what the name of the dish leaves out is that there is also heavy cream and in some versions, yogurt, stirred into the lentils.

So, while the lentils are low in calories by themselves, be forewarned that this milk-fat rich delight (which should perhaps be renamed “black lentils cooked with an entire dairy case”) is not to be eaten every day, unless you are really trying to gain weight or you are a ballet dancer and can burn off those calories with a lot of intensive entrechat or something.

One more great thing about this dish, before I give you the recipe–it freezes beautifully. So, if you live by yourself and you are not a ballet dancer who is going to work all of that butter off in an afternoon of rehearsal, and you don’t have a small army of friends and relations to assist you in eating all of your dal, then you can put it up in individual plastic containers and freeze it. Just thaw out a package overnight in the fridge and when you come home from work, you can pop some rice in the rice cooker and toss your kali dal into the microwave and have yourself a trouble-free meal.

Kali Dal Makhani

1 cup of whole urad dal, picked over and rinsed well, then drained (If you want and are more organized than me, you can soak these overnight.)
1/3 cup split, but not skinned urad, picked over and well rinsed then drained (You can also soak these overnight if you want.)
6 1/2 cups water
2 pinches asafoetida
1 teaspoon fresh ginger, grated finely
3 tablespoons ghee or butter (Although ghee is superior, I will forgive you if you choose to use butter instead. But please, I beg of you, no margarine.)
1 1/2 cups thinly sliced yellow onions
pinch salt
2 teaspoons black mustard seeds
2 teaspoons cumin seeds
5 cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
1 teaspoon fresh ginger finely minced
1-5 fresh Thai chilies, thinly sliced–or you can use any other fresh chilies you like
1/2-3/4 cup heavy cream
1/4-1/2 cup Greek style or plain yogurt that has been strained (optional)
salt to taste
finely diced red onion for garnish
thinly sliced fresh red chilies for garnish
fresh cilantro leaves for garnish
lime wedges for garnish


Okay, if you soaked your lentils, drain them, rinse them and put them into a pressure cooker. If you didn’t soak them, then after rinsing and draining them, put them in the pressure cooker. Add the water, the asafoetida and the first measure of grated ginger.

Bring to a boil and put the lid on the pot, lock it, and bring it up to full pressure. Turn down the heat and cook for at least forty-five minutes if your lentils are unsoaked, for thirty if they were soaked. (If you are sans pressure cooker, then put the lentils into a large pot, add the water, asafoetida and ginger, bring to a boil, clap a lid on it and turn the heat down so that the lentils barely simmer. Cook forever, okay, for about four hours, stirring now and again, and adding water if necessary, until the lentils soften up and are edible. If you have a slow cooker, adapt this recipe to however it works and email me and let me know how it turned out, since I have never cooked this in a crockpot, so I cannot say what it would be like, though I am pretty certain it would work fine.)

Once the forty-five minute mark is reached, release the pressure and open the cooker. Test the lentils. If they are done, meaning soft enough to eat (though be warned that the skins are thick and so even though the lentils are done, they will retain some amount of “chewiness”), then proceed to the next step. If not, bring them back to a boil, put on the lid, bring the cooker up to full pressure, turn the heat down and cook for another ten to fifteen minutes, or until the lentils are done.

Once the lentils are cooked, you will probably need to simmer off some excess water. If the liquid seems quite thin after a good stirring, then put the pressure cooker back on the heat, uncovered and bring it to a boil. Turn down the heat and simmer away as much water as you like. I like my kali dal makhani to be pretty darned thick, so I cook almost all of the water away, but other people like it to be soupier. Both ways are tasty, so it is all up to the individual cook’s preference.

While the water is being simmered away, make the tarka: heat the ghee or butter in a heavy-bottomed skillet one medium high heat. Add the onions and a pinch of salt, and cook, stirring, until the onions are a medium golden brown. Add the mustard and cumin seeds, along with the garlic, ginger and chilies, and continue cooking and stirring until the onions are a deep reddish brown, the mustard seeds have started to pop like popcorn, and the garlic slices are turning a deep gold.

Immediately add the contents of the skillet to the dal, and stir it in well. Stir in the cream and yogurt if you are using it, and taste for salt. Correct the seasoning as needed.

Just before serving, sprinkle with the garnishes, and serve with bread or steamed basmati rice.


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  1. It’s so nice to have you posting again 🙂 My family’s not so much in love with the lentils. This, however, might change things! Couple of questions though – split but not skinned – will this be obvious?
    Also – asafoetida – this has popped up in a few recipes but I’ve always just omitted it. At my favorite tiny Indian grocery they have three distinctly different looking things, all called asafoetida. One of which has a prominent sticker “not for human consumption” but sitting right on the shelf with the others. What exactly should I be looking for and what does it add to the dish?

    Comment by Lisa — January 28, 2009 #

  2. Hey, Lisa!

    The split, unskinned urad are black and shiny on the uncut side and on the cut side, show the pale interior.

    Split, skinned urad are all greyish white because the skin has been completely threshed away.

    As for asafoetida, it is the gum or resin of the plant Ferula assafoetida. The Hindi name for it is “hing,” and you may find it labelled as such in the stores.

    The one that is not for human consumption can be used as a bait for fish, and it can be used in various religious ceremonies as an element of purification. This one is not as refined as the ones meant for cooking so don’t use that!

    I always cook my lentils and beans destined for Indian dishes for several reasons–it helps curb flatulence. How it does this, I am not sure, but it does–I can attest to that from personal experience. If I eat lentils cooked with it, my stomach has no trouble digesting the legumes. If I don’t–look out!

    Secondly, it adds the aroma and flavor of garlic or leeks to the cooked lentils. In India, it is used by those who, for spiritual reasons, abstain from the use of garlic and ginger, as a substitute flavoring in their cooking. (I could probably never be that spiritual!)

    Many Westerners find the scent of asafoetida to be too strong and find it off-putting, though the truth is, once it is cooked, it is not nearly so pungent.

    I like the smell of it, and find that the flavor it gives lentils once all is cooked and blended, to be subtle and delicious, so I never leave it out, though I also recognize it isn’t a necessary ingredient in other households.

    Whether you use it or not is up to you.

    Comment by Barbara — January 28, 2009 #


    Now off to find that Indian market that’s rumored to exist here…

    I probably will try the dal in my crockpot, though maybe not my first batch, and I’ll let you know what happens.

    Comment by Heather — January 28, 2009 #

  4. looks like i will be making a trip to the indian grocery! question about the slow cooker idea – is it possible to overcook the lentils? i was thinking of throwing them in the crockpot and letting them cook while i am at work all day. is there any reason this wouldn’t work?

    Comment by dave — January 28, 2009 #

  5. Dave–with some lentils, you can certainly overcook them in a crockpot, but with urad dal–I am pretty sure they will be fine. There are recipes I have read from India that have the lentils simmering on very low heat for eight hours or more.

    Give it a shot and let me know how it goes.

    Comment by Barbara — January 28, 2009 #

  6. I will try this. I travel a lot and DalMakhni which I had at ZURICH IN KING’S CURRY is something I cannot describe. That place is very expensive but too………….. good.

    Comment by Priti — April 21, 2009 #

  7. Not pleased with the outcome think too many mustard seeds which make it bitter. Nothing like the black dahls Ive eaten in India. Shame… going to try anjum anands buttery black dahl next time!

    Comment by lily — May 6, 2009 #

  8. I made this last night. It’s lovely! It ended up mushier than I expected after 45 minutes in my pressure cooker, so ultimately I just drained off a bunch of the extra liquid instead of simmering it down, and I think I’d do it at low pressure next time. I froze it on a half sheet pan and shattered it into manageable chunks this morning, which I put into a gallon freezer bag. Thanks for the help in creating convenient lunch elements!

    Comment by Danielle — January 25, 2010 #

  9. awsum recepi .

    i liked it a lot

    thankz a tonn

    Comment by r — February 6, 2011 #

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