A Love Letter to the Vastly Underrated Kidney Bean

And a host of ideas for what to do with this versatile ingredient.

September 23, 2021
Photo by Julia Gartland

One unexpected consequence of this year and a half of relentless home cooking is that I’ve developed an affinity for ingredient deep dives. It usually goes as follows: I’ll stumble upon a new-to-me or long-overlooked ingredient, and spend a week or so cooking it in as many ways as possible using (mostly) what I have on hand.

A few months back, while sleepwalking through my weekly grocery store trip, an unassuming bag of dried kidney beans jolted me to attention. Why do I almost never cook with kidney beans when I’ve never met a bean I don’t like? I wondered, hopefully not out loud.

I’ve never been all that into chili, so I decided to start my kidney bean journey a bit further afield—in Afghanistan via lubya, a sweet tomato curry infused with coriander, dried mint, and caramelized onions. A few days later, I went somewhere near Northern Italy, cooking down the kidney beans with the minestrone-esque flavors of cabbage, carrots, farro, and a Parmesan cheese rind.

When I posted my little kidney-bean diptych on Instagram, Yoshi Yamada, friend and chef/owner of fun-loving Indian restaurant Superkhana International in Chicago, chimed in to profess his love of kidney beans, calling them by their Hindi name, rajma (which, by the way, is also the name of a North Indian stew starring the titular ingredient). Our caption exchange sparked a real-life chat during which we waxed poetic on this special bean that is often, inconceivably, overlooked in a lot of households.

“I love kidney beans’ texture; I love their heartiness and I love their flavor,” Yamada said. “There's something about the flavor that reminds me of the adzuki bean paste used in [the Japanese rice cake dessert] mochi—this vague, almost fruity quality.”

We agreed that while everyone occasionally needs the convenience and emotional support of canned beans, few things surpass the cooking liquid that red kidney beans produce when they’re prepared from dried—a rich, syrupy, funky sauce all its own. It lends depth of flavor and luscious texture to dal makhani, a creamy stew of black lentils (urad dal) and rajma that’s perfumed with warming spices and plenty of ginger and garlic, then enriched with cream and butter. I all but begged Yamada to share Superkhana’s version as a fittingly celebratory end to my week of kidney bean cookery.

This dish calls for maybe a quarter of the amount of kidney beans to lentils, meaning with every other bite you get a toothsome counterpoint to the silky-soft dal. The abundant dried spices—including sweet and nutty fenugreek; fruity, bright-red Kashmiri chile powder; and savory asafoetida—are as irreplaceable as the beans and lentils themselves, creating a symphony of fiery heat, sweetness, nuttiness and savory, smoky depth. Still, Yamada insisted that this hearty assemblage is merely a blueprint ripe for experimentation.

“There are certain expectations that go with the dish, but the soaked beans, aromatics and powdered spices can go in any direction,” he said. “I’ve taken it really cumin heavy, or added just a little turmeric and simmered the beans really lightly. There’s a lot of variance within the application of spices alone.”

However creative you get, please don’t replace that glorious, starchy-sweet kidney bean.

Superkhana International's Dal Makhani

Serves 4 to 6

  • 3 cups dried urad dal
  • ¾ cup dried red kidney beans
  • Canola or grapeseed oil, as needed
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 3-inch knob ginger, minced
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 green chile, halved (optional)
  • 2 tablespoons ground coriander
  • 2 tablespoons cumin seeds
  • ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon garam masala
  • 1 ½ tablespoon Kashmiri chile powder
  • 1 ½ tsp asafoetida
  • 1 ½ tsp dried fenugreek
  • 2 cups chopped tomato
  • 6 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • ¾ cup heavy cream
  1. Rinse the kidney beans and black lentils thoroughly in a mesh strainer. Place them in a large pot, cover them with water and soak them for at least 8 hours or overnight. Drain and rinse the soaked lentils and beans, and set aside.

  2. In a Dutch oven or other large, heavy-bottomed pot with a lid, heat a few tablespoons of neutral oil over medium-high heat. Add the onions, ginger, garlic, chile and a generous pinch of salt. Sauté for about 2 minutes, then tip in the coriander, cumin, cinnamon, garam masala, Kashmiri chile powder (KCP), asafoetida and methi. Cook for 30 seconds to 1 minute, stirring constantly. Keep a pint of water handy throughout this portion of the method, and add a few splashes as needed, as the bottom of the pot has a tendency to burn.

  3. Add the tomatoes and cook for a few more minutes, until they start to break down, again adding splashes of water as needed. Add the lentils and beans and about 6 cups of water. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat to medium, and cook, partially covered until the lentils and beans are soft while still holding themselves together, 45 minutes to an hour (depending on how long you pre-soaked them).

  4. Add 1 to 2 teaspoons salt, taste, and season again if needed with additional salt and Kashmiri chile powder if you like more heat. Remove and discard the green chile. Cut the heat to low, and stir in the butter and cream. Taste again, and adjust with additional cream, salt and Kashmiri chile powder. Serve immediately over rice.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • ina pinkney
    ina pinkney
  • Smaug
Chicago-based food critic & freelance writer


ina P. September 24, 2021
I can taste every word and just added kidney beans to my shopping list. Thank you for opening a new lane!
Smaug September 24, 2021
The word "chili" has been pretty well beaten into meaninglessness by indiscriminate use, but this is as much "chili" as a lot of recipes I've seen so named.