When Canadian Lentils invited me to take part in their Recipe Revelations challenge, I totally jumped at the opportunity. Because, if you all read this blog fairly regularly, you'll know that I have a vegetarian daughter that needs protein. What better way to stuff her full than by using lentils?
I cook with lentils pretty frequently. From Masala Dal to Biscuit Ambade, lentils feature at least a couple of times in my kitchen. However, as the challenge required an original recipe, it took me some time to think of something that I hadn't already featured on the blog.
In the end, I plumped for this Indian classic, Dal Bukhara. Dal Bukhara is famous all over India. Its the signature dish of the Bukhara, a restaurant at the ITC Maurya Hotel in New Delhi. Famous for its tandoori (clay oven) dishes, the recipe for this slow cooked dal is a hugely guarded secret. I have eaten the original dal, and let me tell you, its an experience that can never be forgotten. Soft, creamy lentils almost melt in your mouth, and the mellow, yet fiery spicing takes a while to materialise on your tastebuds. Every bite, with a soft naan, is a sensation. Its truly an experience in itself and, as I can attest, unbelievably hard to replicate. I can totally understand all the rumours that swirl around this dish, from the one that says it cooks in a slow tandoor for twelve hours, to another that claims the use of almost twenty spices. All these rumours didn't make my task of trying to recreate this dish any easier :-)
It took me a LONG time to recreate the recipe. This recipe is technically original, as I actually have no clue what recipe the chefs at the Bukhara use. My recipe has come about with a lot of trial and error. The first time I made this dish, I didn't cook the lentils enough, and so while the spicing was fine, the lentils were quite crunchy. It tasted OK, but I was desperate to create that soft creaminess that was characteristic of that Bukhara taste. I tried adding cream during the cooking process, but I felt that this just made the lentils a bit slimy.
The second time I made it, I varied the spices a bit. Using black cardamom instead of green seemed to add the hint of smokiness that was missing from the first version. This time round, I actually managed to get everything right, including a hint of the original taste, but again, something about the dish seemed to be off. Back to the drawing board, sigh!
Then finally, inspiration struck. And of all sources, it was my husband who offered the final piece of the puzzle. We were talking about trying to maybe build a tandoor in the backyard. But then he matter of factly suggested, why not try cooking it in the barbeque? After all those coals pretty much mimic the tandoor at any given time, especially as its a dish that has to go on the top of coals, as opposed to sit inside them, like, say a naan.
Yep. That was the key I figured. But unfortunately, cold weather has meant that the use of the barbeque is strictly limited. So I decided to go with an indoor oven instead. I made the dal to the point of it being almost fully cooked, then covered the pot tightly with foil, and I placed it in a low oven for a couple of hours. When I opened the dal, after it had sat inside the oven, I was just overwhelmed with the fragrance of the spices! And then I tasted it... oh my... finally... success! The dal didn't have the charry, smoky flavour that a tandoor imparts, but it did have the right combination of spices, and the lentils were just amazing. Melt-in-your-mouth texture, each bite just unleashing a torrent of sensation. I served these with saffron rice (I was too lazy to make naans, but you can, the recipe is here) and I was so very pleased with this recipe. It seemed like all my hard work on developing this recipe had finally paid off, and I was rewarded with a Dal Bukhara that tasted eerily close to the original. Mine wasn't as spicy, as all these years of living in the Western world has taken its toll on my spice tolerance, but the flavour was just completely unbelievable. Plus, this is the ultimate slow cooked, cook ahead dish. The spices completely harmonise if let to sit overnight in a fridge, and its one of those dishes that actually taste better the next day.
I urge you to give this dal a go. Chances are, you'll be booking the next flight to India and then complain that the dal at the Bukhara doesn't taste as good as yours :-) Haha!
My friend Connie, also known as the Macaron Queen of Edmonton, she of Mirabelle Macarons took some of the amazing pictures for this post. Thank you, love! I am so looking forward to our next adventure together, and there's something special coming from her and me very soon!
2 cups black lentils
2 large pieces of cinnamon or cassia bark
2 large bay leaves
1 tablespoon whole coriander seeds
½ tablespoon whole cumin seeds
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
5 long, mild red Kashmiri chillies
2 small short, hot chillies
2 inches cassia bark or cinnamon
5 whole cloves
1 pod of black cardamom, seeds only, husk discarded (or 2 green cardamoms, left whole)
½ a star anise
2 dried bay leaves
Rest of the Dish
1 tablespoon butter + an extra ½ tablespoon to garnish
2 tablespoons oil (use vegetable or canola or grapeseed)
1 small onion, diced fine
4 cloves of garlic, crushed
2 inch piece of ginger, grated
1 teaspoon garam masala
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon hot cayenne or chilli powder (opt)
Small tin tomato paste (5.5 oz)
1 cup + a little more of hot water
2 cups plain yoghurt
Salt to taste
1 tablespoon sugar
¼ cup light cream
Large handful finely chopped coriander leaves (cilantro)
Soak the black lentils in cold water overnight.
The next day, rinse and pick over the lentils, then place them in a large pot along with the cinnamon sticks and the bay leaves, and cover with cold water. Add 1 teaspoon of baking soda (bicarb of soda) to the lentils, and bring to the boil. Boil hard for 5 - 10 minutes, skimming off any scum that rises to the top. Turn down the heat, then simmer, topping up with hot water ocasionally, for between 40 minutes - 1 and half hour. The lentils are cooked when they are soft, but just about holding their shape. Drain, remove the cinnamon and bay leaves, and place back in a pot.
To make the spice mix, toss the ingredients in a hot pan, shaking and stirring constantly for about 30 - 45 seconds, until fragrant. Grind them to a fine powder in a spice grinder (or an old coffee grinder) Keep aside.
In an oven safe large pot (I use my Le Creuset), heat 1 tablespoon of butter and the oil. Add the onion, and cook for 5 - 8 minutes, until the onion softens, and just begins to colour.
Add the garlic and ginger and fry for a minute.
Add the tomato paste, the spice mix, garam masala, ground cinnamon and chilli powder, if using, and stir well, using a little hot water to loosen the paste, if its too thick.
Cook for about 10 minutes, then add the drained lentils. Stir together, and slowly add the yoghurt, little by little until well incorporated. Cook for about 5 minutes, adding a little more water if the dal is too thick and creamy. Add the salt to taste, and stir the sugar.
Preheat the oven to 150 C.
Cover the pot tightly with foil, and place its lid on top, if it has one.
Place in the low oven for 1 - 2 hours. If you're keeping it in longer, turn the oven down to 120 C, then you can keep the pot in it for up to four hours, until ready to serve.
To serve, take the pot out of the oven, and stir in the cream, butter and fresh coriander. Adjust the seasoning to your taste again, adding a little more salt if required.
Serve with rice, naan or any Indian bread.
Note: If you are making this in large quantities for the freezer, take out of the oven, and let it cool completely. Freeze in meal sized portions. You can reheat in the microwave or the hob, once thawed. Do not add the cream/ butter/ cilantro before freezing, you can add it just after reheating.