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.
What are Madras Lentils?
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.
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!).
How to Make Madras Lentils
- Cook the onions sufficiently in the first step 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).
- 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?
My favourite pairing with Madras Lentils is soft, homemade naan (or warmed-up storebought), 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!
Other Foodess Favourite Vegetarian Indian Recipes
- Saag Paneer is a healthy vegetarian Indian curry that literally means “Spinach-Cheese”. It is bright, fresh and quick cooking (compared to many curries that are slowly simmered for hours). I make this Saag Paneer recipe on REPEAT for my family and I guarantee you’ve never seen three small children inhale spinach 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.
- 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)
- 1 tbsp finely grated ginger
- 1 tsp cayenne powder
- 1 tsp turmeric
- 2 tbsp tomato paste
- ½ cup water
- 1 can brown lentils
- 1 can kidney beans
- 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 chili, garlic and ginger and remaining spices 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.