Simple lentils a canvas for creativity

Lentils (from lower left): urad split, small brown and green moong split, and red split lentils (top).

Because so many Punjabi dishes popular in the West feature slow-simmered vegetables, American eaters sometimes mistakenly assume they’re all derived from pinnacles of home cooking. But dal makhani, featured on the India Association of Greater Charleston’s menu for its Diwali party this Saturday, is very much a restaurant invention.

Dal makhani is built on a base of black lentils and red kidney beans, both of which were common in the Pubjab before the 1947 Partition scattered the province’s professional chefs and kitchen workers. Typically, though, they were soured with yogurt. Kundan Lal Gujral, founder of the influential Moti Mahal chain, took a different approach.

Gujral, known for his dapper outfits and impressive moustaches, first attained fame as a tandoor cook; he’d brought a clay oven with him from Peshawar to Delhi. But he needed a sauce to compensate for the dryness of tandoori chickens that didn’t sell right away. Gujral’s solution involved butter, cream and tomatoes, ingredients that were far richer than what most home cooks kept on hand.

“Just as Escoffier was God’s gift to the dairy and milling industries because all his dishes required cream, butter and flour, the great Indian chefs of the ‘50s and ‘60s pursued a goal that no longer seems very interesting to us,” Manjit Singh Gill, corporate chef for India’s ITC Hotels, told a reporter. “They wanted food that tasted ‘shahi’ or rich.”

Butter chicken was an immediate sensation, attracting attention from Delhi’s elite. Still, it couldn’t be enjoyed by practicing vegetarians. So according to The Routledge History of Food, he applied the same sauce to black lentils.

A few years ago, Moti Mahal opened a branch in New York City; dal makhani remains a staple of the restaurant’s menu.

“At…Moti Mahal Delux, a bowl of lentils can make you go wobbly with happiness,” the New York Times’ Pete Wells promised in a review. “The dish is called dal makhani, and it is an inky stew of spiced black lentils that have been coaxed into absorbing what feels like twice their own weight in salted butter imported from India. They are deeply, truly luxurious.”

For just that reason, dal makhani is now associated with celebrations. In addition to dal makhani, Taste of India is preparing paneer curry and mashed barbecued eggplant for India Association of Greater Charleston’s annual Festival of Lights’ observance on Nov. 19. Samosas and idlii chaat will be served prior to a cultural program that starts at 6 p.m.; the feast begins at 8:30 p.m.

To learn more about the event at the Charleston County School of the Arts, contact Randhir Makkar at 843-901-8637 or

Reach Hanna Raskin at 843-937-5560 and follow her on Twitter @hannaraskin.