How to make chana masala, a fragrant Indian dish of chickpeas and spices

  • Chana masala involves cooking chickpeas in a tomato-based sauce fragrant with spices. This one includes cumin, coriander, cayenne, turmeric and for good measure, the spice blend garam masala. (Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

There are more than 1.7 billion with a “b” people on the Indian subcontinent, all of whom eat food. Chana masala is a relatively simple dish that can crack the door to the cuisines of that region. Be nice to your tongue and give it a try.

Before we begin, let’s get something straight: We’re not going into this thinking we can cook something here in the U.S. that tastes exactly like what we’d get in Mumbai or Sirpur-Kagaznagar. There are simply far too many factors over which we have little to no control.

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For example, we think that chickpeas are chickpeas, right? Turns out, the chickpeas known as chana (from which this dish derives its name) are not that common here in the U.S. Chana is smaller and darker than the beige and chubby chickpeas we’re used to, which Indians would call “chole” (CHO-lay).

Fear not, though, because, what we can do is reproduce some of the flavor profiles of Indian food, and chana masala is a great place to start.

The word “masala” and its variants appear in a number of languages — including, now, English — and generally means spice or spices or a mix of ingredients. Hence, your garam masala — “garam” translating as “warm” — the heady spice mix found across India and probably attainable from your local grocer. Then there’s your chicken tikka masala — “tikka” referring to meat roasted in a tandoor oven — a dish of roasted chunks of chicken served in a heavily spiced, tomato-based sauce that you’ve probably seen in exactly seven bajillion restaurants. Or, perhaps you’re a fan of Penn Masala, the all-male, South Asian a capella group based out of the University of Pennsylvania.

Regardless, masala refers either to a blend of raw or toasted spices or, perhaps more frequently, a mix of ingredients like tomato, onion, garlic and ginger that are sauteed together along with various spices. It’s to this mixture, then, that the main ingredient (in today’s iteration, chickpeas) is added to simmer until it’s done.

Now, because items like tomato, onion and garlic are as common in contemporary global cuisine as pigs were in the streets of 1830 Cincinnati, those three items alone will not give you an “Indian-tasting” masala. The ginger will certainly help; fresh ginger is a staple in the cuisines of South Asia. What really makes your masala Indian, though, are those spices.

Chana Masala

Prep: 15 minutes

Cook: 20 to 30 minutes

Makes: 8 servings

Though there’s a fair bit of prep and measuring, this recipe is pretty easy. It’s based on a recipe given to me by my friend Ravi Balasubramanian, originally from Tamil Nadu, India, now of Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Ingredients that add specific qualities, like heat, sweet, sour, etc., may be increased or decreased to suit individual tastes.

3 tablespoons neutral oil, such as expeller-pressed canola oil

1 tablespoon cumin seeds

1 large onion, cut into small dice

2 ounces (about 3 tablespoons) garlic-ginger paste, see note

1 fresh jalapeno or serrano, minced, or more to taste

1 tablespoon ground coriander

1/2 teaspoon ground cayenne

1 teaspoon ground turmeric

1 can (28 ounces) ground or diced tomatoes

1 can (29 ounces) chickpeas, drained, rinsed

1 teaspoon garam masala

1 tablespoon amchur (dried mango powder) or 1 ounce lemon juice

1 tablespoon brown sugar

Salt as needed

Fresh cilantro, chopped

1. Heat oil in a large, heavy bottomed saucepan over medium heat. Add cumin seeds and onion; cook, stirring, until fragrant and onion is translucent, 1 to 2 minutes.

2. Stir in garlic-ginger paste and minced jalapeno along with coriander, cayenne and turmeric.

3. Add tomatoes and chickpeas; increase heat to bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer to thicken slightly and combine flavors, 15 to 20 minutes.

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4. Add garam masala, amchur or lemon juice, brown sugar and salt to taste (about 1 teaspoon). Simmer to combine flavors, 5 minutes. Remove from heat and serve immediately, garnished with cilantro.

Note: Garlic-ginger paste is available at some grocery stores in tubes or jars. To make it at home, simply pulse roughly equal amounts of peeled, minced garlic and peeled, grated ginger in a food processor with a little oil and salt. It will keep for a couple months or more in the refrigerator. Or buy garlic paste and ginger paste separately, then mix them together. Leftovers freeze well.

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