Sure, sure, it sounds easy enough. Truth be told, it isn’t hard. What could be difficult? Canned, yes you heard right, canned chickpeas. Canned tomatoes (I know, again with the canned!). Some onions, some spices, and Bob’s Your Uncle, Chana Masala. What isn’t spoken of is the obsessive tweaking, the endless variations, and an order of said dish in every restaurant that makes the stuff. This isn’t a life long quest for me. I fell in love with Chana Masala several years ago at a friend of friend’s pot luck, party, fund-raiser thing. Balancing glass and plate in hand, wandering the table of offerings taking a spoonful of this and a dab of that, I almost passed it over. Very unassuming, chickpeas in tomato sauce, I thought. Pass. Well, maybe not. I like chickpeas, ok, a spoonful on the plate. A few moments later, in the middle of doing the very awkward, sip from your drink, hold your plate in the same hand as the glass so you can put of bite of food in your mouth, smile, chat a bit while trying not to spill anything on the lovely carpet it happened. My first bite of Chana Masala slipped through my lips, seductively played with my taste buds, and slid away. Whoa, what was that? Another bite, the last one on my plate. Now I was eyeing the buffet table, and scouting a quiet corner where we could be alone. I inconspicuously made my way back to the table, took a another spoonful, ok, two, and backed into the corner by the bookcase. Sweet tomato, with an underlying smokiness, and a hit of tang. The meatiness of the chickpeas and the spice that started at the front of your tongue and then gently filled your mouth with heat and left a slow burn. Hooked. I was totally hooked. I started collecting and making recipes from the internet. I visited every Indian restaurant I could to taste their version. I went to the bookstore and copied recipes from cookbooks. Over the last several years I’ve been refining and adjusting the same recipe over and over again. I think I have a version that works on so many levels. But of course, those levels would be the ones I define.
That is the best thing about cooking at home. You get to decide how you want your food to taste. Sure, use a recipe, but use it as a guideline. Don’t like chickpeas? Try this recipe with cut up cauliflower, or add a bunch of different veggies and create an Indian ratatouille. Hate cilantro? Leave it out. You get to be the magician and create your own magic. So make my recipe, and then stand there, hand on hip, taking bites and deciding what you like and don’t like. Scribble your thoughts on the margin so the next time you make it, it’s already your recipe. Really, you’re gonna have to trust me, it’s so much fun!
Good-quality olive oil
2 small to medium yellow onions, medium dice
2 large cloves garlic, minced or grated on a microplane (my new fav)
1/2 tsp ground coriander
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1 tbls. garam masala
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp. ground cardamom
1 28-ounce can whole peeled tomatoes
1 tsp kosher salt, or to taste
2 tbls. of fresh lemon juice
1/2 tsp. of cayenne, or to taste
2 15-ounce cans chickpeas, drained and rinsed
Plain whole-milk or greek yogurt, optional
A few lemon wedges, optional
Chopped or torn cilantro, optional
Film the bottom of a large saucepan or Dutch oven with olive oil, and place the pan over medium heat. Add the onion, and cook, stirring frequently, until it is deeply caramelized and even charred in some spots. This will take awhile, the more color, the better the final dish will be.
Turn the heat to low. Add the garlic, stirring, and add a bit more oil if the pan seems dry but be careful with the oil, you don’t want to add too much. Add the cumin seeds, coriander, ginger, garam masala, and cardamom, and fry them, stirring constantly, until fragrant and toasty, about 30 seconds. Add ¼ cup water, and stir to scrape up any brown bits from the bottom of the pan. Cook until the water has evaporated away completely. Pour in the juice from can of tomatoes, followed by the tomatoes themselves, using your hands to break them apart as you add them; alternatively, add them whole and crush them in the pot with a potato masher. Add the salt and the lemon juice.
Raise the heat to medium, and bring the pot to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, add the cilantro and cayenne, and simmer the sauce gently, stirring occasionally, until it reduces a bit and begins to thicken. Taste, and adjust the seasoning as necessary. Add the chickpeas, stirring well, and cook over low heat for about five minutes. Add 2 Tbs water, and cook for another five minutes. Add another 2 Tbs water, and cook until the water is absorbed, a few minutes more. This process of adding and cooking off water helps to concentrate the sauce’s flavor and makes the chickpeas more tender and toothsome. Taste, and adjust the seasoning as necessary.
This better the second day, or even several days after that. I fill a bowl and reheat it in the microwave. I love this with some greek yogurt dolloped on top, and a sprinkle of fresh cilantro. I don’t like to cook the cilantro in the dish, I think it gets bitter and black looking. If you’d like some more acid, or just love the fresh bright taste against the spice, squeeze on some more fresh lemon.
I think you’re going to love this dish, it’s so worth the time involved, which isn’t that much, really. Do try it.
There are so many recipes and versions that helped in finally getting my ideal version together. The methods however, varied so widely that it could be daunting. This method is from Orangette’s version as I felt it was the clearest, and you understand why the steps matter. So kudos to Molly and Brandon for making directions that work beautifully. Thank You.