Rajma, India’s red kidney bean stew, is a taste of home

Rajma, India’s red kidney bean stew, is a taste of home

    (Laura Chase de Formigny / The Washington Post)

(Laura Chase de Formigny / The Washington Post)

After a long shift of making pasta and pizzas in the dining room at the University of Illinois, I was exhausted – and deserved a treat.

It was the 1990s, I was an international graduate student, and when I got back to my apartment in Champaign, I saw a small new Indian restaurant on the edge of campus and stepped in skeptically. Familiar aromas met me. My latent homecoming from several months away from the family in Mumbai was finally registered because it seemed to be lifting.

I felt like I was stepping into an aunt’s kitchen. Behind the counter stood a matronly woman pouring generous portions of steaming rajma over piles of fragrant basmati rice in large white ceramic bowls. I do not remember anything else on the menu, but I do remember that I paid for my dish by weight. It was 115g of rajma and rice, some of its sauce dragged along the outside of the bowl. I sat down to eat. Every tasteful bite embraced my interior, which had been starved for the comfort of all the familiar things. I held back the tears of relief. While digging in, I knew: If I could find this in the Midwest on a cold winter day, the home would never be too far away.

Rajma has only been a part of Indian cuisine since the end of the 18th century, but the rajma of every Indian cuisine is filled with family stories of migration. Red kidney beans simmered with onions and tomatoes and seasoned with the homemaker’s favorite blend of spices are the epitome of comfort food, evoking memories of warm hugs, cozy family dinners, large gatherings and lazy siestas on Sunday afternoons.

In my memory, the rajma was about friendship and trust, about eating a hurried lunch with my school best Pramita at her home when her mother, whom I knew as Aunt S, would invite me. At the convent, our lunch break was short. Pramita and I bolted the gates of the school out through the neighborhood and barreled up three stairs to her house. Aunt S would give us stainless steel plates filled with hot parathas and steaming rajma poured out into small bowls from her little galley’s kitchen.

A jovial Bengali woman married to a man from Lucknow, Aunt S was a trained dietitian. She made a rajma that was a bit of all the places she called home: Calcutta (now Kolkata), Lucknow and finally Bombay (now Mumbai). It was impossibly complex and phenomenally comforting. Made with smaller, fragrant red beans from Uttarakhand, her rajma simmered in a sauce of onions and tomatoes and was topped with homemade malai or cream. I later learned that she badly did not shop for garam masalas, instead adding a delicious homemade blend of roasted cumin, fenugreek, black pepper and cardamom, unlike the sturdy garam masala in northern India.

And even though it came from a stranger’s kitchen, that restaurant rajma – cooked and served with such care – showed me that I was missing so much more than a good recipe

This sit-down meal was a school-day luxury. In those afternoons, my own pristine tiffin returned home on the back of the tiffin wala bike. Mom knew I had lunch at Pramita’s house.

Although Mom had many legumes in stock, for reasons I did not know at the time, she never made rajma. As a teenager, rajma became my rebellion against my mothers’ aversion to it; it nurtured my sense of curiosity and adventure. So one summer, when family obligations took all my adults away and my parents decided that our trusted nanny and I wanted to live at our farmhouse outside of Mumbai, I tried to do that.

My mom had given me a crash course in cooking, and my dad had given me Reader’s Digest craft books as my summer buddies. I found a section on backyard camping complete with recipes – including one for baked beans that looked like rajma. I bought ingredients from a country market, including a can of beans, and made enthusiastic food on the outdoor wood stove. But the beans tasted weird and bad and I could not see why. We ate it in silence.

A dozen years later, while attending graduate school in Illinois, an unexpected sight of canned beans in a Meijer supermarket triggered a longing for home: the family, the safety nets for reliable relationships, and unconditional trust. Coming to America as a single graduate student had been my biggest leap of faith, and it came with a hard lesson in learning who to trust. Thirteen thousand miles away from everything I loved, and now in charge of my own meals, time, bills, and emotional care, I sought my mother’s advice on monthly phone calls. And I began to appreciate her preference for ingredients, her time and kitchen budgets, and how her father had taught her to cook. She explained how his spice-layering techniques made the difference in the kitchen and how their ties had shaped her and her trust in people.

Her life had not given her the luxury of time or resources to watch a pot boil, which she found too picky and involved to make. Slowly, her kitchen began to make sense – so did the recipes I had scribbled down while listening to her.

Although Aunt S’s rajma recipe escaped me, the memory of these tastes made me smile again. I tracked down Reader’s Digest and its recipe for baked beans at the library, and the reasons for my failed rajma experiment emerged: Indian ketchup was not tomato sauce; jaggery was not brown sugar; and not all canned beans were vegetarian. My campfire attempt at rajma had lacked mother’s kitchen logic and Aunt S’s care, important ingredients from two women who had never met each other but who shared an unspoken maternal pact of trust and care. My beans also lacked my grandfather’s cooking techniques, and all the flavor nuances that had made Aunt S’s rajma special.

And even though it came from a stranger’s kitchen, that restaurant rajma – cooked and served with such care – showed me that I was missing so much more than a good recipe. As I ate, I realized I had to start over, learn my recipes and techniques again, even trust again. And I knew that no matter where I lived, it was only trust and care that would shape where I felt most at home.

Godbole writes about Indian cuisine at currycravings.com.

Makhani Rajma (cream red beans in North Indian style)

    (Getty / iStock)

(Getty / iStock)

Active time: 30 minutes Total time: 1 hour

Serves: 4 to 8 servings

Rajma, or red bean-based dishes, are a staple in many Indian homes. Of the many Indian preparations that use red kidney beans, makhani rajma is a classic. This version from food writer Nandita Godbole demonstrates the spice-layering techniques used to create flavor, with onions, tomatoes and a spot of cream added, just when each will shine best. The recipe can be adapted to dietary needs. If you like chili, you will like makhani rajma. This dish is typically served as an accompaniment to a larger meal, but can be eaten as a main course. The finished dish tastes even better once it has rested overnight in the refrigerator. Serve family style with basmati or brown rice, naan and / or raita.

Storage notes: The sauce can be prepared until the beans are added and stored in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.

Where to buy: Indian bay leaf (tamal patra) can be found in Indian grocery stores and online.


2 tablespoons vegetable oil

170 g finely chopped red or garlic (optional, see notes)

1 tablespoon finely grated or chopped ginger

1 tablespoon finely grated or chopped garlic

1 (2-inch) cinnamon stick

2 to 3 whole cloves

2 green cardamom pods

1 Indian bay leaf (see notes)

2 teaspoons cayenne pepper (can replace with Kashmiri chile for milder heat)

200 g finely chopped or crushed fresh tomatoes or canned diced tomatoes (see notes)

800 g boiled kidney beans; or use two cans, rinsed and drained (see notes)

240 ml of water, plus more as needed

1/4 teaspoon dried fenugreek leaves (kasuri methi powder, see notes)

1 teaspoon granulated sugar or honey (optional)

Fine sea salt or table salt

60 g fresh cream for garnish, optional

Cooked basmati rice or brown rice or naan

Raita, for serving, optional


1. Heat the oil in a deep, thick-bottomed frying pan over medium-high heat until it shines.

If using onions, add them to the frying pan and cook, stirring frequently, until soft and light golden brown, 6 to 8 minutes. Stir in the ginger and garlic and cook while stirring, taking care not to burn until it is aromatic, approx. 30 seconds. Add cinnamon, cloves, cardamom and bay leaf, and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 1 minute.

If you use the onions, sprinkle the cayenne red on top and mix to a uniform coat. (If you do not use the onions, remove the pan from the heat and let it cool for about 1 minute before adding the cayenne, as it will immediately burn in very hot oil.)

4. Add the tomatoes while stirring so that they mix evenly with the spices. Cook, stirring, until the liquid begins to evaporate, about 2 minutes. (See notes for a smoother sauce.)

5. Add the beans and stir gently so they do not break. Add the water, put the lid on and reduce the heat to low. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, to prevent beans from sticking to the bottom of the pan until slightly thicker, about 20 minutes.

6. When the sauce begins to thicken, add the fenugreek leaves. Stir in the sugar and season with salt. Put the lid back on and continue to cook until the sauce thickens further and the flavors melt together, another 10 minutes.

7. Taste one of the beans, and if it is not yet flavorful, add 1/4 to 1/2 water, put the lid back on and simmer for another 10 minutes, then taste again. Cover and continue to cook for another 10 minutes. Taste and add more salt and sugar or honey if necessary.

8. When ready to serve, remove the cinnamon stick and bay leaf and discard them. Stir the cream on top, take it off the heat and serve warm family-like as an accompaniment or main course with rice, naan and raita next to it, if desired.


To achieve a smooth sauce, puree tomatoes and spices before adding the beans. Remove the pan from the heat and allow to cool for a few minutes. Remove and save the cinnamon and bay leaves, then use a stick blender to process the sauce in short bursts to reduce splashing until smooth. If you are using a regular blender, allow the sauce to cool completely before processing. Once pureed, return the sauce to the pan, add the cinnamon stick and bay leaf and continue with the rest of the recipe.

If you do not use onions, use an additional 200 g of chopped tomatoes.

The dish is best when using homemade beans.

The recipe can be adapted to other kinds of cooked beans, including black-eyed peas and Adzuki beans. Or substitute your favorite ingredient instead of the beans, such as parboiled baby potatoes and halved cremini mushrooms, or proteins, such as diced or shredded rotisserie chicken.

Indian bay leaf, also known as tamal patra, has a different taste than standard bay leaf and results in a more complex taste.

Fresh fenugreek leaves and the dried seeds are different in taste from dried fenugreek leaves. Do not replace.

Nutrition information per. portion (1/2 cup), based on 8 | Calories: 139; Total fat: 4 g; Saturated fat: 0 g; Cholesterol: 0 mg; Sodium: 47 mg; Carbohydrates: 21 g; Dietary fiber: 6 g; Sugar: 3 g; Protein: 7 g

This analysis is an estimate based on available ingredients and this preparation. It should not replace the advice of a dietitian or nutritionist.

From cookbook author Nandita Godbole from currycravings.com.

© Washington Post

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