Living the Good Life…

My food blog & cookbook in progress


The chickpea, while neither a chick nor a pea (I’m dating myself here perhaps, but folks of a certain TV-watching era will recognize this hackneyed tribute to Saturday Night Live in the heyday of Dana Carvey and Mike Meyers) makes for a wonderful meal. The recipe that follows most closely imitates the Punjabi version – alternately known as chana or chole – which I grew up with, and which remains my favorite.

When I was little, chana was always a menu item when we had non-Indian folks over for dinner. My mother always felt that chana was a great way introduce Indian food to the uninitiated palate, and she is right(as is often the case) at least, when serving a homemade meal. When eating out in a restaurant, however, I wouldn’t necessarily order chole. In my experience, the chole in restaurants – which usually serve Mughlai cuisine and not the true regional Punjabi food – are merely chickpeas in a rather generic red sauce and nothing like the real thing. Dal makhani – a rich preparation of mixed lentils and beans in a creamy sauce – is a much better and authentic bet in these places. Chole are best had at the roadside dhabas – the Indian equivalent to a truck-stop – or snack stands rather than at the more upscale restaurants.

I have fond memories of this dish in the context of our housewarming in B-22. Since we had decided to limit party offerings to finger food only (in a misguided effort to minimize plate usage), I had decided to make chole as a pre-party dinner for the housemates and out-of-town attendees. Manish, the sweetheart paid me the ultimate compliment by pronouncing it so good that he couldn’t eat the party fare after! As it turned out, the chole made a guest appearance on party table after all, albeit in disguise. We put the leftovers into the food processor (The Cuisinart that Adam had received as a birthday present from his Mom) and served it up along with wedges of pita/naan as a “spicy” and distinctly dark, and completely non-authentic hummus. It worked though. People loved it. So try it yourself sometime.

For this section, I have reversed the tactics of the rajma recipes, laying out the long version first, and offering the shortcuts in the notes.

My version of this dish:

Soak one cup of dried garbanzo beans* for several hours or overnight in several cups of water along with one teabag – plain black tea – and a pinch of baking soda*. Discard the water and pressure-cook the beans* in a fresh batch of water (use enough water to cover the beans which should have swollen considerably in size after being soaked) with the teabag (you may use a new one if you wish) and another pinch of soda. Cool slightly, drain, and discard teabag.

To make the gravy, sauté together a red onion sliced long and thin, some fresh ginger cut into matchstick like pieces, and 1-4 slit green chilies in a pan. When the onions begin to turn translucent add some chana masala* (be as generous as your palate allows) and salt, and stir for a few more minutes before adding some chopped fresh tomatoes*. Stir in beans, add enough diluted tamarind water to cover, adjust salt and other flavorings (I usually find I need to add more masala as this point) and let the mixture simmer and the gravy thickens. In contrast to rajma, which is quite soupy, chole should have thick gravy that clings to the beans.

Serve the chole topped with a salad-like mixture of chopped fresh onions (or scallions) and tomatoes, slivers of fresh ginger, slit green chilies, and cilantro and serve with wedges of lime or lemon*. Alternatively you may serve the chopped salad in a bowl by the side of the chole so that people may top their plates individually if they wish.

*Chole Notes

(i) As a variation you may try this dish with kale chane, a variety of beans that resembles garbanzo beans in shape but are much smaller and darker – almost black – in color. Be aware that these beans do not soften like garbanzos and other beans, even when cooked for long periods for time. Since they are already black in color, kale chane do not need the tea/baking soda pre-treatment.

(ii) The tea and baking soda are not essential but impart a dark, almost black, color to the beans, which is characteristic of this dish.

(iii) Slow cooker alternative – cook beans in a slow cooker/crock pot for several hours with tea bag and baking soda in a low setting. There is no need to soak the beans if using this approach. Discard the water, add the gravy mixture and cook for a few more hours. Serve as described earlier.

(iv) Chana masala – my Mom and I have had battles royal on the issue of chana masala. She is right of course, in maintaining that her freshly-ground chana masala is superior by far than any store-bought mixture, but as a grad student looking for convenience the commercial stuff – available in little boxes in Indian stores in most parts of the US today – is quite adequate, good even. As with all mixes the contents of homemade chana masala varies widely. Click here for my best approximation with the ingredients divided into two categories according to what I consider to be essential and optional. Remember that in the case of spices like cloves and nutmeg, a little goes a long way, whereas cumin may be used generously without too much trouble.

(v) Use fresh tomatoes if possible. I do not like canned tomatoes for this dish although I do not mind using tomato paste. In fact, if tamarind happens to be scarce, I even use both fresh tomatoes and paste in the same recipe.

(vi) Tamarind is available in Indian and Oriental grocery stores, usually in the form of dry (Indian-style) or somewhat pulpy (Thai-style) blocks. I personally prefer the Thai version when I can get it. To use, soften a small walnut-sized lump in warm water and then knead it to loosen the fruit pulp from the fibres and seeds. Strain and repeat the process with the solid material until most of the pulp has been macerated and dissolved. The liquid of extracted material can be diluted somewhat and used in chole. For chutneys, it is advisable to use lesser quantities of water and make a thickish paste (we would have called it a slurry in our science labs). Amchur (dried mango powder) or anardana (pomegranate seed) powder are good substitutes or even enhancers for tamarind.

(vii) During the winter season certain dhabas, will serve the chole with sticks of fresh white radishes (mooli) and green chilies instead of the onion salad. Their sharp bite offers a nice alternative to raw onions. To serve with your chole, chop any type of radish (white or red) into chunks or sticks and sprinkle with salt and a squeeze of lime and if desired, a pinch of ajwain. Serve on a plate alongside with green chilies – whole or slit lengthwise and given the same salt/lime treatment. Radishes are also a favored accompaniment to meat dishes, especially those made with mutton.

(viii) Chole are typically served with bread – poories or kulchas – rather than rice, but that is a regional preference. Rice, especially a mildly spiced pulao, works just fine. I confess that I love wiping up the remains of chole with sourdough bread. Pita breads are also great.

(ix) For the quick version use can canned garbanzos. Drain and wash them before adding. You can also use the wet masala from the jar (mom’s shortcut) but be sure to remember to fry the mixture with some dry chana masala before adding the beans and tamarind water.

As we say in Hindi “Toot pado!”


  Swati. wrote @

Awesome! Thank-you!

  Swati. wrote @

And would your mother share her home made channa masala recipe?

  sankablog wrote @

Sure, I already did.. look under the “Masala means” heading for details.

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