Madras Lentils

5 from 11 votes
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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

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.

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)
  • Amma’s special Masoor Dal and Indian Chickpea Curry Recipe
  • 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)
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5 from 11 votes

Madras Lentils

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.
Prep Time: 30 minutes
Cook Time: 30 minutes
Servings: 8


  • 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 18 oz can brown lentils drained
  • 1 18 oz can red kidney beans drained
  • ½ cup heavy whipping cream
  • ½ cup finely chopped fresh cilantro
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  • 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: 155kcal | Carbohydrates: 5g | Protein: 1g | Fat: 15g | Saturated Fat: 7g | Polyunsaturated Fat: 2g | Monounsaturated Fat: 5g | Trans Fat: 0.2g | Cholesterol: 32mg | Sodium: 665mg | Potassium: 128mg | Fiber: 1g | Sugar: 2g | Vitamin A: 695IU | Vitamin C: 4mg | Calcium: 31mg | Iron: 1mg

Nutrition information is automatically calculated, so should only be used as an approximation.

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Recipe Rating


  1. Agnes says:

    How long will it keep for?

    1. Jennifer Pallian BSc, RD says:

      Up to 4 days in the fridge or you can freeze it for months!

  2. Marsha Gamble says:

    Do you drain the canned beans & lentils?

    1. Jennifer Pallian BSc, RD says:

      Yes I do. I’ll fix the recipe to be clear.

  3. Kim says:

    5 stars
    I’ve been looking for a new vegetarian meal for ages and this one hit the spot! It’s super filling on its own but I did serve it with leftover chicken for those who wanted it. Everyone loved it!

    1. Jennifer Pallian BSc, RD says:

      Hi Kim, that’s so nice to hear! Thank you for the lovely comment.

  4. Nina says:

    Is there a way to convert this to cook in a slow cooker?

    1. Jennifer Pallian BSc, RD says:

      Hi Nina, yes, you could saute everything and switch it to slow cook when you add the water, lentils and salt. It could slow cook for 8 hours on low or 4 hours on high, whichever suits you. Add the cream at the end.

  5. Kelly says:

    I’ve made this once before and it was well received so I kept the recepe. I’m making it again and this time realized the instructions mention chili (powder?), but chili is not in the ingredients list. I can’t remember if I included it the first time. This time I just guessed and added a heaping tsp. We’ll see if anyone notices!

    1. Jennifer Pallian BSc, RD says:

      Hi Kelly, thank you so much for pointing out that confusion! The chilli referred to the jalapeno pepper (a type of chilli) but now I’ve changed the wording to be clear. I hope it turned out well for you! I think a tsp of chili powder would fit in just fine. 🙂

      1. Kelly says:

        Thanks! I probably figured it out the first time I made it, but in my rush to make dinner the second time I was so confused.

  6. Korena says:

    5 stars
    This is a huge hit with my family and everyone agrees it is delicious, especially my bean-loving toddler. I usually skip the jalapeño simply because I usually forget to buy one, and use a bit less salt and cayenne. Otherwise this is perfect – flavourful and nutritious and easy!

  7. Kristen says:

    5 stars
    I loved this recipe! I’m a huge fan of the Tasty Bites madras lentils and this recipe did not disappoint- so good! I ended up using curry powder in place of turmeric because I ran out of turmeric and it turned out great. I also used 15oz cans of lentils and beans because I could not find 18oz cans anywhere. Any suggestions on where to purchase the 18oz cans?

    1. Jennifer Pallian BSc, RD says:

      I’m so happy you love this recipe as much as I do! I find the larger cans closer to the bottom shelf – it’s usually the store brand or no-brand version that has larger sizes. But using the smaller cans is fine! You’ll get a little extra sauce to mop up 🙂

  8. Person says:

    Use COOKED lentils!

  9. Ginina C. says:

    I want to make this recipe asap, but I’m not sure what you mean by “toast the tomato paste.” Does that mean it has to be toasted before you add it to the dish, or while it’s cooking in the dish? If you toast it beforehand, how exactly does one toast tomato paste? Thank you in advance!

    1. Jennifer Pallian BSc, RD says:

      Hi Ginina, to toast the tomato paste just means allowing it to cook a little before you add liquids. It gets darker in color and smells a bit toasty. The natural sugars caramelize and it loses the raw, canned tomato taste. Nothing separate to be done, just follow the instructions in the recipe card, it’s step 4:

      “Add tomato paste and cook a few minutes until it turns a shade darker and the oil shimmers on top.”