This Madras Lentils recipe is an easy, delicious vegetarian curry with a combination of lentils and kidney beans in a crazy-delicious tomato cream sauce.

EASY madras lentils curry recipe

Madras Lentils are kind of the Butter Chicken of bean curries, with lentils and kidney beans simmered with aromatics in butter and cream to make a rich, tomato-y base.

My South Indian husband believes that Madras Lentils is probably actually a Western misnomer. Madras is the capital of the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu, where chillies, curry leaves, mustard seeds and coconut oil are more likely to be present than butter and cream.

Cooking onions for Madras Lentils Recipe

Although commonly known in North America as Madras Lentils, this dish really reminds me of a delicious Punjabi lentil dal we get in our North Indian restaurants in Vancouver. Please share in the comments if you know more about it!

Whatever you call it, this simple, stick-to-the-ribs lentil curry is now on regular rotation in our home. The kids love it for the soft texture and gentle flavours.

What’s In Madras Lentils?

To make this healthy, stick-to-the-ribs vegetarian recipe as weeknight-friendly as possible, I used canned lentils and kidney beans. Feel free to cook your own from scratch but note lentils are much quicker-cooking than kidney beans so they should be prepared separately.

I opted for brown lentils because they are available in a can and remain distinct after simmering. You could swap in another type, they may just break down into the sauce a bit more (not a bad thing!). Using tomato paste instead of tomato sauce builds more concentrated flavors. Garnish with cilantro, yogurt or a splash of cream.

cumin seeds and minced onions

Are Madras Lentils Healthy?

Madras lentils are loaded with protein and fiber. They’re vegetarian and certainly on the healthy side. With a good dose of cream and butter, it isn’t a distinctively light-on-calories, or nutrition-primary dish, but you could round out the meal with a sauté of greens or sliced raw vegetables and definitely feel good about it.

adding cayenne powder and the remaining spices

How to Make Madras Lentils

  • Cook the onions sufficiently – this first step in the instructions is key.They should be completely soft, translucent and golden on their way to caramelized. The 10-minute time frame is based on very-thinly-sliced, room-temperature onions. Thicker slices or cold onions can easily double the time. You want them to be totally cooked down, which brings a gorgeous sweetness to the sauce and also allows them to completely disappear into the final sauce. The onions in many curries actually are the sauce.
    • To accomplish even onion softening, choose an enameled cast iron dutch oven (here is an affordable one) or other very heavy, thick-bottomed cooking vessel or else you’ll end up with burnt onions at the edges and raw ones in the middle.
  • Don’t be shy with the garlic. It looks like a lot. Heck, it IS a lot. But without a boatlaod of spices, the onions, garlic, ginger and cumin really shoulder the flavour load, yielding a mild – but still uber-flavourful – finished dish.
    • GARLIC PREP TIP: buy pre-peeled garlic at the grocery store, take it home and throw it in your food processor to finely mince. Pop it in a zippered freezer bag and press it to arrange flat. You can easily measure it from the bag when you need it for a recipe.
  • Toast the tomato paste. This step is really important to flavour building. Indian dishes are so incredibly complex because of all of this layering in the cooking process. Giving the tomato paste those few minutes to caramelize produces an incredible roasty tomato flavour (vs. the sharp acidity and slight metallic taste of tomato paste straight from the can).
adding tomato paste on the spices and aromatics
  • Simmer or don’t. I made this recipe with weeknight ease in mind, so skipped the long simmer. IF you have time, include an extra half-cup of water and simmer on low with a lid mostly covering the pot for up to an hour, stirring occasionally. The flavours only improve with time.

What Goes With Madras Lentils?

adding the beans and lentils to the mixture

My favourite pairing with Madras Lentils is soft, homemade naan (or warmed-up storebought), flaky paratha, or homemade chapati.

Basmati rice is a quick and easy option, or brown rice for a more filling, healthier option. We love to enjoy our lentil and bean curries with fresh homemade Indian flatbread, and skip the utensils altogether. Tear off a piece of the flatbread and use it to scoop up some curry.

Are Madras Lentils Vegan?

While Madras Lentils typically have dairy butter and cream, you can easily make this recipe vegan by using a plant-based butter and swapping coconut milk for the cream. I tried it and it’s delicious!

My Indian Husband’s Favourite Indian Recipes

  • Saag Paneer I make this spinach curry recipe on REPEAT for my family and I guarantee you’ve never seen three small children inhale greens so fast. ⁠
  • Coconut Curried Lentils a scrumptious coconutty red lentil stew with mustard seeds and incredible flavour. It’s been a fan favourite for a decade.
  • Butter Paneer Masala in this life-changing dish, paneer is quickly simmered in an insanely delicious sauce made with tomatoes, cream and rich spices. It sucks up the rich, buttery sauce and makes the world a better place.
  • Flaky Homemade Potato Samosas, Chicken Samosas and Samosa Pie (we really love samosas)
  • Malai Kofta (paneer and potato balls in creamy tomato sauce). It’s my favorite dish to order in an Indian restaurant and even better homemade!
  • Homemade Chai Tea (Chai the authentic Indian way)
Easy Madras Lentils in a pan.

Madras Lentils

Prep Time 30 minutes
Cook Time 30 minutes
Servings 8
Keyword Madras Lentils


  • 2 tbsp oil
  • 4 tbsp butter or ghee
  • 1 large onion finely chopped (340 g/12 oz)
  • 2 tsp kosher salt divided use
  • 1 tbsp cumin seeds (or 1 tsp ground)
  • 1 minced jalapeno
  • 3 tbsp minced garlic (9 large cloves garlic)
  • 1 tbsp finely grated ginger
  • 1 tsp cayenne powder
  • 1 tsp turmeric
  • 2 tbsp tomato paste
  • ½ cup water
  • 1 540 mL can brown lentils (18 oz)
  • 1 540 mL can red kidney beans (18 oz)
  • ½ cup heavy whipping cream
  • ½ cup finely chopped fresh cilantro


  • Heat oil and butter in a large dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add onion and 1 tsp of the salt. Cook until onion is soft and golden, about 10 minutes (longer if onion was fridge-cold or not super-finely chopped). Stir frequently and reduce heat if it starts charring. It should be translucent and almost caramelized.
  • Reduce heat to medium and stir in cumin seeds, cooking until they smell fragrant (about a minute).
  • Add jalapeno, garlic, ginger, cayenne and turmeric and cook a minute more.
  • Add tomato paste and cook a few minutes until it turns a shade darker and the oil shimmers on top.
  • Stir in the water, lentils, beans, cream and remaining 1 tsp salt.
  • Reduce heat to low simmer, covered, at least 10 minutes. (If you have time to simmer longer, the flavour gets even better with time. Use 1 cup water instead of ½ cup because it will thicken up quite a bit, then simmer up to 1 hour, stirring every now and then.)
  • Stir in cilantro and serve.



Calories: 155kcalCarbohydrates: 5gProtein: 1gFat: 15gSaturated Fat: 7gPolyunsaturated Fat: 2gMonounsaturated Fat: 5gTrans Fat: 0.2gCholesterol: 32mgSodium: 665mgPotassium: 128mgFiber: 1gSugar: 2gVitamin A: 695IUVitamin C: 4mgCalcium: 31mgIron: 1mg
Keyword Madras Lentils

Last Updated on January 26, 2024 by Jennifer Pallian BSc, RD

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1 year ago

Can you/How would you go about freezing this?

Nancy Arko
Nancy Arko
1 year ago

5 stars
What a great recipe! I started from 1 cup each of dry lentils and 1 cup black beans and cooked before adding, so flavorful!

Kate M.
Kate M.
2 years ago

5 stars
This recipe has become a family favourite! It’s so savoury and perfectly balanced, and I love that it’s all ingredients I usually have on hand.

Just wondering if there’s an easy way to modify this to use dried lentils and kidney beans instead of canned?

June Forgie
June Forgie
2 years ago

5 stars
Fabulous recipe and so easy! I made this today using my cast iron frying pan and worked perfectly. The lentils had just the right amount of spice. Loved it!

Shannon Forbes
Shannon Forbes
2 years ago

5 stars
This dish was amazing! Super delicious, and a hit for the adults and the kids in the family. It was also nice that I had all ingredients on-hand or could easily make modifications. Will definitely be making this again =)

Shannon Forbes
Shannon Forbes
2 years ago

5 stars
Absolutely delicious, and super quick to put together. Whole family approved 👌

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