Rajma in Hindi refers to kidney beans. It is also the name for a very popular North Indian dish of kidney beans in a spicy. As a child, kidney beans were not something I saw too often as it is not traditionally used in my native cuisine. I do not remember ever seeing this deep red coloured bean in any of the kitchens in the family, near or extended.
The only occasions where I would come across these beans would be in the homes of our Punjabi friends where these were almost a staple at every lunch or dinner we ate! I never really liked this “red bean” curry and always preferred the potatoes which were another staple at those affairs.
Much later, when I was in my late teens or so, I would occasionally overhear some distant aunt (or someone at the neighbour’s) who was visiting from Delhi or Bombay (as I still think of Mumbai) saying she would cook “Rajamma” to serve with chappathis for dinner. This was initially a puzzle to me because, in my community, “Rajamma” is a name given to girls and I couldn’t connect it up with cooking at all! That was until a later I figured out that the “Rajamma” was a corrupted Tamil name given to the famous Punjabi kidney bean curry.
So like I just said, Rajma has never been a favourite of mine whether the bean or the dish. My husband on the other hand just loves the curry, and it seemed unfair not to occasionally cook something he loves just because I don’t like it. Sometime after we got married, and my kitchen skills had become decent enough, I attempted trying to cook Rajma for myself. How difficult could cooking kidney beans in onion-tomato gravy get, after all?
As it turned out, it wasn’t that easy either. The Rajma I cooked was alright taste-wise, but wasn’t quite there because the beans just wouldn’t cook soft enough. And there was no one I knew back home who could help me out with this one. So I just came to some sort of a decision in my mind and decided that Rajma was one of those dishes I just couldn’t get right. Everyone has one of those, right? And if my husband wanted to eat Rajma, we’d just order it when we ate out which he was happy enough to do.
Still, there is something about home cooked food, and I did so badly want to get that Rajma right and conquer this one. Much talking to friends and some research later I found the solution to my problems. The first reason why the kidney beans weren’t cooking soft was because they were probably old. The older the beans are, the longer they take to cook and sometimes never quite soften up enough, so always buy beans after checking the “packed on” dates on the labels. The other is a simple trick that involves adding a pinch, just that and not more, of baking soda to the soaked kidney beans before you cook them. This trick works pretty much with all kinds of beans. Apparently, adding baking soda also possibly neutralizes lectins present in dried beans (see below)
I’m happy to say that I have been making a mean dish of Rajma for a few years now and its about time I shared it here. There are many recipes for a good Rajma curry and each one has its own combination of ingredients and spices which make it special. I have over the past couple of years developed a liking for Rajma and I really like it only with Basmati rice. In my opinion, this is the best way to eat it.
If you cook the kidney beans ahead and freeze it, this Rajma is very easy to put together especially on days when you don’t have much time to cook. Serve it with rice (or chappathis if you prefer) with a salad and yogurt on the side you have a comforting, filling and balanced meal.
My version of Rajma is a little low on spices and has a good dose of ginger which I feel works great with the kidney beans in this preparation. I learnt to use this combination of spices and ginger from a former neighbour (the same one whose Baingan Bharta I loved). Do also take a look at this creamier Rajma and lentil recipe which another Indian way to cook kideny beans.
In India you will generally find two or three different kinds of kidney beans. Typically, the dark red largish variety of kidney beans is used to make this dish. However you can also use the slightly smaller Kashmiri Rajma beans or even the light coloured variegated Rajma beans instead.
My aunt tells me the lighter variegated variety of kidney beans cook softer and creamier than the red ones.
Indians, by and large, put their pressure cookers to good use and it’s the easiest way to cook these and other dried beans and legumes. If you’re not comfortable with them, cook the Rajma using your preferred method. You can also pre-cooked kidney beans if you find that easier and can find it in your store. But if you will please, try cooking it from dry. It doesn’t take a lot of time or effort, and it’s really the best way in my opinion.
I know a lot of people do not discard the water (me included, till now) in which the kidney beans have been cooked, but it turns out that there is evidence to suggest that this is not a good practise as my cousin pinted out in the comments below.
Kideny beans (more than other type of beans) have the highest concentration of a toxin known as Phytohaemagglutinin (PHA). PHA is a lectin (sugar binding protein in beans) which causes food poisoning when red beans are consumed in it’s raw, soaked or under cooked form.
The way to make sure your cooked kidney beans are safe is to first soak them in water for at least 5 hours and discard the water. Put them again in water and then cook them using a method that will make sure they boil for at least 10 minutes (pressure cooking a good method), and then drain out the water the beans were cooked in. Also make sure the beans are cooked until they’re really soft.
In case you are wondering, 1 cup dried kidney beans should cook up to about 2 1/2 cups.