This is a staple dish in North India, where it is known as the queen of all dais. It is also referred to as maa di dal. Translated literally this means “Mother’s lentils,” which pretty much says it all in terms of how Punjabis view this dish. When cooked over a slow fire, the dish is incredibly rich and hearty. Most North Indian restaurants turn it into dal makhani by adding butter or cream.
Because this is a tougher lentil than most, it usually takes longer to cook on the stovetop. It’s often cooked over the lowest of flames in a heavy pot overnight, which is why it’s so helpful to have a slow cooker to do all the legwork for you. Cooking this dish slowly and for a longer period of time breaks the lentils down to a point where you may not even need to add cream and butter. I never do. But, if you prefer it richer, by all means add it in! The mustard oil is optional, but my nani (maternal grandmother) always added it to help the lentils break open and infuse them with flavor.
Yield: 14 cups (3.31 L)
3 cups (603g) whole, dried black lentils (see Notes) with skin, cleaned and washed thoroughly
1 medium yellow or red onion, peeled and quartered
1 (2-inch [5 cm]) piece ginger, peeled and roughly chopped
4 cloves garlic, peeled
4 -6 Thai, serrano, or cayenne chiles, stems removed
1 teaspoon-l tablespoon (5-15 mL) red chile powder
12 cups (2.84 L) water
1 teaspoon (5 mL) mustard oil (optional)
½ cup (118 mL) heavy whipping cream or plain yogurt (optional)
1 pat butter for garnish (optional)
Chopped onions, for garnish
Chopped tomatoes, for garnish
1. Put the black lentils in the slow cooker.
2. In a food processor, grind the onion, ginger, garlic, green chiles, and 1 cup (201 g) of the cilantro. Add this mixture to the lentils along with the cumin, coriander, garam masala, salt, turmeric, red chile powder, and water.
3. Cook on high for 4 hours. Add the mustard oil, if desired.
4. Cook for another 4 hours. Mix in the remaining cilantro and add the cream or yogurt, if you wish. Garnish with a pat of butter and chopped onions and tomatoes. Serve with basmati or brown rice or with roti or noon, an onion salad, and yogurt.
To make this dish in a 3½-quart slow cooker, halve all the ingredients and proceed with the recipe. A half recipe makes 8 cups (1.89 L).
Slow cooker size: 5-quart
Can these Recipes be made on the stovetop?
Absolutely. Just keep in mind that when cooking on the stove, you’ll use a quarter more water because liquids evaporate. So, if a slow cooker recipe requires 4 cups of water, use 5 cups when making it on the stovetop. Also, though you can keep your pot at a low simmer on the stovetop, you still always want to keep an eye on it to prevent drying and burning. If food-especially beans and other legumes-starts to dry out, just add more water and continue to cook.
The rule in the land of slow cookers is usually never to open the lid while cooking for fear of losing critical heat and slowing down the cooking process. This may be true, but I have a tough time following the rules myself. Also, there are some dishes, such as Curried Spinach with Homemade Cheese (Palak Paneer), that need to be stirred during cooking. Know that the cooking times cited in my recipes reflect my inability to keep the lid shut, so to speak. Just do your best to limit peeking. A good rule-of-thumb is to add about 5 minutes of cooking time for every time you lift the lid.
Black lentiis black gram (urad, maa, matpe beans): This lentil is one of the best-known throughout India, especially because of its use in many Hindu ceremonies. It’s easy to recognize because it’s jet black, tiny, and oval-shaped. Like other lentils it comes in four forms: whole with the skin on (sabut urad), whole with the skin off, split with the skin on (urad dal), and split with the skin off. Of course, the first form is the most nutritious. The other forms of this lentil have their own unique textures and qualities when cooked. Removing the skin and splitting the lentil makes it creamier and easier to digest.
This spice mix is one of the most common in North India. It includes coriander, cumin, cloves, cardamom, black pepper, cinnamon, and nutmeg. You can purchase the spices already ground or buy a packet of all of the above combined but left whole for you to grind later. If you grind them yourself, remember to balance the amount of each spice used. And be careful, as the whole cinnamon can be a little challenging to grind all the way down. Don’t be intimidated to go this route though-I’ve done it and the results are wonderful. In most dishes, the garam masala is sprinkled over the food toward the end of cooking, but I prefer to put it in at the beginning along with the other spices.