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February 5, 2013

a little river to the golden ground | dal makhani

It's cold here. I know, I was just talking about the heat. Last week was a heat wave, and now we are plunged back into winter - it's currently 9ºC. I'm wearing woolen socks and slippers, a coat over my legs, two layers of merino, and a silk/wool blend scarf. And I'm only just not cold. Would you believe it, I'm sitting inside. The weather forecast says it'll be warm again soon, possibly even tomorrow. In the meantime, I'm putting the kettle on for hot water bottles. Coincidentally, the cold is the perfect time to share this curry recipe: dal makhani (pronounced mahk-ni)

"My wife makes the best dal makhani," says the Indian man who runs the spice shop on Hanover St. Since visiting India I like going there. Even though the aroma is a very dilute version of Delhi's spice markets, and the pre-weighed and priced bags a far cry from the newspaper parcels - I always think of India. The man thinks it's funny when I try and remember bits and pieces of Hindi. His shop is the only place I know that stocks urad dal - whole black lentils traditionally used in dal makhani. If you can't find them, you could use puy lentils (also called french green lentils), as I did when I made this for my family back in Wellington.

dal makhani

1 cup urad dal/puy lentils/brown lentils
1 cup rajma (red kidney beans)
2 tsp cumin seeds
8 garlic cloves
2 medium onions (red or brown)
thumb-sized piece of ginger root
2 tsp garam masala
2 small red chilli peppers
30g butter
1/2 cup/100mL cream
2 tomatoes (optional)
420g can whole peeled tomatoes
1 tbsp high heat oil (I use coconut, but canola or rice bran could be substituted)
fresh coriander for serving

1. You could use canned kidney beans instead of dried ones. This will reduce the cooking time significantly. You could also use canned lentils but I think it's nicer to use dried ones for their better texture. 
2. Instead of cream, you could use a can of coconut milk. It doesn't taste of coconut!
3. The garam masala can be substituted for 1/2 tsp curry powder, 1/2 tsp ground chilli, 1 tsp ground cumin.
4. The chilli peppers can be substituted for ground red chilli - add this to your desired spice level. 
5. Coconut or sesame oil can be substituted for the butter to make this recipe vegan. 
6. I love rajma so I make this with a half:half dal:rajma ratio. If you like you can decrease the amount of rajma, just increase the dal by the same amount. 

If you're using dried dal and rajma you will need to soak them first. I soak them in separate bowls, with at least 4x as much water. You want them well and truly covered because they will swell up! Soak for 8-12 hours. Usually, I put them onto soak one night ahead, and then when I get home around 6pm, they're ready to be cooked.

Rinse the dal and rajma and boil in fresh water. Add some of the ginger, in large pieces so you can easily remove it and 1 chopped red chilli (no seeds)/a pinch of chilli flakes/1 tsp ground chilli. Simmer for 40 minutes - 1 hour, or until the rajma are soft. If you're using canned rajma, just boil the dal and spices together. They will only take 30 minutes maximum.

Prepare the vegetables: dice the ginger and garlic, chop the onions and tomatoes finely. Heat the butter and oil in a heavy fry pan - using both helps to stop the dal catching on the pan. Add the cumin seeds. When the pan starts to crackle - it will also smell amazing - add the onions and fry until they're browned. Add the tomatoes (canned and/or fresh), garlic, ginger, and spices. Sauté until they meld together into a sauce.

When the dal/rajma are done, drain and keep the water aside. Add the boiled rajma and dal to the tomatoes. Mash the dal with a potato masher/bottom of a ladle. This gives the dal its charateristic thickness.

If your dal is looking bit thick, add a little of the water the dal/rajma were boiled in. It probably won't be clear anymore, but that's ok! Let simmer on a low heat for 10-20 minutes - the longer the better. Add the cream/coconut milk and stir whilst heating for another five minutes.

Serve with some fresh coriander on top and some roti; or if you like, rice. I don't overwhelmingly love rice so I like to serve this by itself with roti, just like the norm in Rajasthan (north-west state of India). To be truly authentic you'd eat this without a spoon, using only your right hand. As we learned, you tear the roti with your right hand and fold it into a sort of scoop, then scoop up some dal and consume. In the beginning, we asked for spoons, but after seeing someone search through dirty dishes, then polish them "clean" on their dirty apron we learned to fit in and eat sans spoon pretty fast. I tried to find a picture of one of the many dal makhani I ate in India - but I barely took any pictures of food.

Instead I'll show you where I purchased spices in Delhi. I'd asked one of the lovely Kashmiri brothers who sold me almost my entire Indian scarf collection if he knew a good place to purchase spices. "Yes," he said, "I'll show you. It's hidden one, they have another place on Pahar Ganj, but it's more expensive. For tourists. But you're my friend, I'll show you. Come," he said, and I followed him in the slightly dubious way that's normal for foreign single women in India. My maharani/travel partner C was elsewhere. He lead me through extremely narrow spaces between buildings, and just when I was beginning to wonder when we were ever going to find this spice place, or if it even existed, we came around the corner to this. 

The woman whose hand you see is mixing masala spice mix - a fiery mixture of red chilli, cumin, garam masala and tumeric. When she realised just how much I intended to purchase, she made me chai and onion pakora. "Sit here," she said, "You sit. You hungry. Good." On my last day in Delhi I was quite seriously sick and largely unaware of the extent of my illness. I felt very faint and cloudy at times, and sweet spicy chai handed to me was just what I needed. 

I sat and observed this view while she served other customers, blended my spices, and hand ground masala chai for me to take back to New Zealand. Somehow she knew I needed a seat, and she gave me hers for a while. Sometimes language is unnecessary.


"winter meals & spring tunes" was only ever meant to be an interim title - and when I started this blog we were eating winter meals and listening to spring tunes. But seasons change and names don't - so I finally got around to designing a proper header, and giving this space a bit of a spruce. What do you think?

day 10/365
grateful (strangely) for the iciness of Southern air and that I beat the urge to turn on the heating with multiple merino layers, a spot of baking, and a hot water bottle for my lap.


title from the tallest man on earth - little river


  1. This.looks.amazing. Can't wait to try it! (As well as all the other recipes!)

    1. I hope you love it as much as I do. You might see a version of your cherry jam around here in the next few weeks ...!

  2. Oh wow my husband is Goan and this is a regular on our menu here, love it and got so excited to come here and see it...xx

    1. What a compliment coming from an expert! Thank you. xx

  3. This sounds delicious and I can only imagine the smell too. I hope the weather is a little toastier tomorrow, sounds like good hot chocolate weather tonight for you. x

    1. Lots of hot water bottles and rooibos tea here, that's for sure. Definitely getting warmer though, thank goodness. Not quite ready for winter yet!

  4. I am in love with your story of the lady who made you chai and pakoras. Indian food is my favorite. Tikka Masala has got to be one of the things that makes me happiest. What a lovely post!

    1. Thanks Trish! I like how Indian curries use similar vegetables but different spice combinations or methods of cooking make them taste so different. I remember having paneer tikka in India and thinking it was chicken. It's actually cheese, but the way it had been dry baked in the tandoor made it an almost meaty texture.

  5. That looks so delicious, I have bookmarked it in preparation for next curry night, I too loved the India story and photos, more please. The new look is also quite fetching, I love it. hope you are well, lovely.

    1. I am well - I just re-read your interview at the wholefood mama and refound your aubergine pickle recipe at the best time - everything is in season! I am going to make it this weekend .. x

      ps. more India stories will come..just not too sure how to present them just yet.

  6. That recipe looks wonderful, thanks for sharing. We always make dahl with red lentils. I've not tried using Puy so I'll give that a go. It is a wonderufully warming winter dish. I hope your summer returns soon!

    Gillian x

    1. I hope so too! All the types of lentils I suggest (brown, puy, and whole black lentils) are different from red in that they keep their shape a bit better as they are boiled, so the result has a bit more of a bite than red lentils, which make more of a soup. My goal is to perfect a red lentil dal this winter! x

  7. Maitland St Meals! I like the new title and design. It looks very welcoming, like a nice place to get cosy and hang out for an afternoon. The curry looks amazing! Bookmarked for when the weather gets colder...which might take some time in the Gold Coast! x

  8. food is such a huge part of winter. keep warm lovely.

  9. Finally cool enough around these parts (after a run of 40 degree days) for me to make this tonight and it tastes fabulous! Loving your new look and name as well. x

    1. It makes me really happy that you made and enjoyed this, so thank you so much for telling me. Hope you and baby are doing well. x

  10. This looks so good... I've yet to make a dal at home. It's so comforting and aromatic x