Chana Masala – another one of those Indian buffet staples – means simply “spiced chickpeas” (or close enough). My most memorable experience eating chana masala was not at a buffet, but at a downtown food court in Boston. It’s not that it was great food (it was good) but I did find it surprising that there was an Indian vendor at a food court. It made me realize that in Toronto, there is no food court (outside of Gerrard st.) I know of has any Indian food, and I’ve been to many food courts (sadly). One day, I hope that changes. I’m getting tired of Manchu Wok, and don’t even get me started on Subway. Ok, moving on…
There seem to be two kinds of chana masala: one, a drier, more traditional-style dish, and the other has a more saucy curry-base. I prefer the saucy-kind. The base is usually composed of tomato (a pretty new addition to Indian cuisines) and the more standard onion, garlic and ginger. The main flavours are coriander seed and mango powder – a fresh, bright, and sour tang balanced out by chili heat, earthy cumin and fresh coriander leaves that cut nicely through the heaviness of the simmered tomato sauce. I’m also employing a commonly-used trick – cooking the chickpeas in a giant pot of black tea, which will flavour them slightly, but will also stain them brown-black, which is more visually appealing (to me).
- 1 cup of dried chickpeas
- 2 bags of black tea
- 2-3 tbsp ghee or vegetable oil
- 1 tsp whole cumin seeds
- 1 larger-size onion (around the size of a softball or around 3.5 inches in diameter), sliced into half-moon rings or coarsely chopped
- 2 tbsp finely chopped ginger
- 1 tbsp finely chopped garlic
- 1 cup unsalted tomato sauce
- 1 tbsp freshly ground coriander seeds
- 1 tsp freshly ground cumin seeds
- 2-3 tsp mango powder
- 1 tsp Kashmiri chili powder
- 1/2 tsp turmeric
- 1/2 tsp garam masala
- 1 1/2 tsp coarse salt
- 4 tbsp coarsely chopped cilantro
What you will need: medium-sized bowl, large pot / stock pot, large frying or saute pan, knife and chopping board, measuring cups and spoons, wooden spoon or spatula, several small bowls for organization, can opener, plastic wrap, colander
- Soak the Chickpeas Overnight: Put the cup of chickpeas in a medium-sized bowl, and fill the bowl with cold water – just enough to cover the pile of chickpeas. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and put it in the fridge overnight.
- Cook the Chickpeas: Fill the large stock pot with about 3-4 inches of water and the cup of chickpeas. Bring the water to a boil over high heat. When the water is boiling, add the two black tea bags and turn the heat down to medium-low / low (about 3 on my dial) and simmer the chickpeas this way for 1 hour. That’s right, a whole hour. No one said this was going to be easy. About 10 minutes into the cooking, remove the tea bags (I have tea bags with long strings on them, and I tape them to the handle of the pot so I can get them out easily and without burning my fingers). If the pot ever appears to be running out of water, add a cup or two of hot water to top it up.
- Mise en place: While the chickpeas are cooking arrange the ingredients in separate bowls. One small bowl for the whole cumin seeds. One bowl for the chopped onion. One for the garlic and ginger. One bowl or measuring cup for the tomato sauce, combined with the ground coriander, cumin, mango powder, Kashmiri chili powder, turmeric and garam masala (just stir it all together, it’s fun). One bowl for the salt, and one final bowl for the chopped cilantro. This is a bit of arrangement-overkill, so have a look over the recipe and see what makes sense to you. The first few steps, however, will require some speed, so preparing things in advance like this will be very helpful.
- Once the chickpeas are finished simmering, pour or scoop out 1 cup of the cooking liquid into a measuring cup, and drain the chickpeas into a colander (in the sink! in the sink!). Run the chickpeas under cold water for about 10 seconds. They are ready to use now.
- Start the Sauce: Put the saute pan on the burner and turn to heat to medium (about 5-6 on my dial), and add the ghee or oil.
- Once the ghee is hot, throw in the whole cumin seeds, and fry for about 5 seconds. That’s it. They will burn fairly quickly in hot oil; this is why we have all of our ingredients prepped!
- Add the chopped or sliced onions into the pan quickly. Stir them around to pick up the cumin seeds, then let them cook, stirring once or twice, for about 5-6 minutes or until they are lightly browned.
- Add the chopped garlic and ginger, and stir them into the onion and cumin. Fry these until they become fragrant and sweet. This will take anywhere from 1-4 minutes. Keep stirring the mix to prevent the onions from burning.
- Add the tomato sauce and spices to the pan. Stir everything together to get a nice even mix, then let the tomato sauce heat up until it starts to bubble. This may not take very long, but let the sauce cook for about 5 minutes. If it’s bubbling and popping and making a mess, turn the heat down slightly.
- Add the chickpeas to the pan. Also add the cup of reserved black tea cooking liquid, the salt, and half (2 tbsp) of the chopped cilantro. Mix the entire pan together evenly. Raise the heat up to get the water boiling. Once it’s boiling, lower the heat to medium-low (3-4 on my dial) and simmer the mixture for 15-20 minutes, uncovered.
- Simmering the sauce will allow the tomatoes to cook, the spices to meld into the sauce, and the chickpeas to absorb some new flavour. But cooking things also makes water evaporate and dries food out – that is why we’ve saved and added the cup of black tea liquid. You will know when the curry is done when the sauce has changed back into a thick curry, instead of a watery mess. The sauce must hold together on a spoon – a thick stew consistency – or else it will not hold the flavour well. The time it takes for the liquid to reduce to this consistency depends on how hot your pan is, so keep an eye on it. When it looks thick and tasty, it’s done.
- Garnish the curry with the remaining chopped cilantro, and eat.