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Chana Masala is About the Most Fun You Can Have with Chickpeas
Like many Toronto people, my introduction to chana masala came from one of the many outstanding Indian buffet restaurants that I was addicted to in my 20s. When you think about it, these restaurants are unique in big cities for the proportion of their menus that are devoted to vegetarian offerings, and their dedication to spiciness, two very important qualities when looking for a place to eat out, IMHO. Chana masala was always a big part of the magnetic pull toward these restaurants, a pull that I found pretty much impossible to resist.
Not long after my buffet phase, I was introduced to the concept of a vegetarian thali, which is a little like a TV dinner except the food is fresh and delicious. Think of the metal trays they used to get in the mess tent on MASH, but instead of unidentifiable slop, imagine it full of spicy curries, accompanied by fragrant basmati rice and fresh naan. With pickled vegetables and raw onions covered in a hot green chutney rounding out the experience, it is not possible to leave the restaurant feeling anything less than deeply satisfied and ready for a nap. The photo below was taken during a "fact gathering mission" for this post at the lovely Motimahal Restaurant in Toronto's little India neighbourhood. You can see the chana masala in the top right of the thali.
As with the buffets, chana masala was almost always an important part the vegetarian thalis that I've tried. (There was usually also a delicious potato-cauliflower curry known as aloo gobi and some kind of dal.) In a thali, what you end up with is a satistying contrast in flavours because these three dishes are prepared with different spices. For its part, chana masala contributes a complex blend of aromas, with some sweetness mixed in with the heat. The sweetness comes from cinnamon, cardamom and cloves; think of the rich aromas of a chai tea, infused into a hot spicy stew and you'll be in the right mental ballpark. Those flavours mingle very nicely with the other curries on the plate and play well with the relative blandness of rice and fresh flatbread.
I've tried to make my own chana masala a few times over the years and I've never really been impressed until I tried this recipe. The spice was just too wimpy in the earlier versions, and the texture of the chickpeas never seemed quite right. Both of these issues were turned around in a big way when I used this chana masala recipe from VegRecipesOfIndia as my inspiration. I simplified their recipe (and probably changed the flavour in the process) because I wanted a balance between authenticity and something doable in my kitchen. I will say that this recipe got me closer to the restaurant experience than anything else I've tried.
Making the recipe involves a fair bit of prep, but once that's done, it comes together quickly. You'll need to soak the chickpeas the night before and then pressure cook them to get the right (soft) consistency. Speaking of pressure cookers, there are a couple of pieces of slightly out-of-the-ordinary equipment that you'll need: a kitchen timer, a small mortar and pestle, a small electric spice grinder, and yes, a pressure cooker. These are all kitchen goodies that are worth having for other recipes as well.
1 cup dry chickpeas, soaked overnight
3 cups water
1/2 tsp salt
1 black teabag
2 green cardamom pods
1 inch cinnamon stick
4 black peppercorns
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp coriander seeds
2 dry red chilies
3 Tbl canola oil
1 medium onion, minced in food processor
1 medium tomato, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic
1/2 inch ginger
1/4 tsp turmeric
1/4 - 1/2 tsp hot red chili powder
1/4 tsp garam masala (optional)
1/2 tsp salt
1 1/4 cups water
1/2 tsp amchoor powder (dry mango powder) or substitute 1 Tbl lemon juice
Pick through the chickpeas, making sure that there is nothing there that isn't a chickpea (little stems, sticks, etc.). Soak the chickpeas in a large bowl of water overnight.
Drain and rinse the chickpeas, then place them in a pressure cooker with 3 cups of fresh water, 1/2 tsp of salt and 1 black teabag.
(Pressure cooking is a bit of an art. Your pressure cooker may need a slightly different procedure to get tender chickpeas, but this is what I do.) Seal the pressure cooker and put it on medium heat. After the locking pin locks, time out 13 minutes. When the timer runs out, turn off the heat, but leave the pressure cooker on the burner until the locking pin unlocks.
The chickpea cooking time is ideal for getting the other things ready.
Carefully break open the cardamom pods on a cutting board and remove the little black seeds inside.
Heat up a deep frying pan (ideally one with a lid) over medium heat.
Gather the cardamom seeds along with the other whole spices on a plate (cinnamon, cloves, peppercorns, cumin seed, coriander seed, chilies).
Dry fry the whole spices, stirring frequently for 5-8 minutes, being careful not to let them burn.
While the spices are frying, cut the garlic and ginger into smallish pieces and place them in a mortar and pestle with a little salt. (If you don't have a mortar and pestle, finely mince the garlic with salt, and grate the ginger with a fine grater, being careful to capture the liquid as well as the grated ginger.)
Pound the garlic and ginger to a fine pulp.
Once the dry spices are finished frying, let them cool a bit then place them in a small spice grinder.
Grind them to a very fine powder.
By this point, the chickpeas should be done, looking something like this. Just let them continue cooling.
Reheat the frying pan over medium heat and heat up the oil. Transfer the garlic and ginger to the frying pan and stir fry for a couple of minutes.
Add the minced onion to the frying pan next.
Fry the mixture, stirring often, until the onion is very soft and starting to brown, 15-20 minutes.
Next, add the chopped tomato to the pan and mix well.
Let the tomatoes cook until they soften, about 5 minutes.
Add the mixture from the spice grinder to the pan, along with the turmeric, hot chili powder and optional garam masala.
Next, drain the chickpeas and add them to the pan.
Add 1/2 tsp of salt and mix well.
Pour in 1 1/4 cups of water and again mix well.
Reduce heat to medium low.
If you have a lid, cover the pan and let the chana cook for 10 minutes or so. Toward the end of cooking, you may want to mash some of the chickpeas with a potato masher and mix everything again, just to make the gravy a little thicker.
Just before serving, mix in 1/2 tsp amchoor powder (or 1 Tbl lemon juice).
Serve hot alongside rice, with toast or any other plain flatbread.
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Posted: Sunday, June 7, 2015