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The borders between Pakistan and India, when it comes to food, are artificial. To say that a dish is Pakistani and not Indian is an impossibility, as flavours and tastes know no boundaries. Suffice to say, this is a regional Punjabi dish, and one that's easy to fall in love with, whether cooking it in Lahore, New Delhi, London or Ljubljana. Call me idealistic, but food can bring people together, even if politics may pull folks apart. Let’s call for a culinary love-in. This month’s dish would be a good place to start.
What is Punjabi chana masala?
At the heart of a Punjabi chana masala recipe is the humble chickpea. Enter legumes – filling and delicious and versatile: bring me your finest falafel, hummus, prebranec, and baked beans. In exploring the possibilities of this protein and fibre-rich ingredient, I quickly stumbled upon a classic of Punjabi cuisine.
Whether you call it chana masala, channay or chole masala, at its core is a baked vegetarian ratatouille built around chickpeas. What gives it exotic flavor are a mixture of spices, the wildest of which are amchur (mango) powder and chole masala. Now I’ve got a great spice store in Ljubljana (Hisa Zacimb) with all sorts of unusual things, but their focus is the near east, and they have neither amchur nor chole masala powders. There’s also a good Thai grocery store, but with a Punjabi population in Slovenia of, I’m just guessing, about seven people, they are short on these spices. So I’ve got to mix them myself. Role up the sleeves and fire up the mortar and pestle.
While recipes can vary, particularly in quantity of spices, the basic ingredients I was able to find: coriander, cardamom, black pepper, cinnamon, red chili, cumin, cloves. Not so much able to find: black salt, and dry pomegranate seeds (called Anardana). I was able to acquire a pomegranate and I dry-roasted the seeds, so I’m hoping that counts. Smashing all the ingredients together, I ended up with a tasty spice mix, though I’m not quite sure how to use it. I know that two teaspoons of this is powerful enough for my Chana Masala. Game on.
This dish is normally a snack food, though enough of it can make for a main, particularly if coupled with maida flour bhatoora fried bread, at which point it’s referred to as chole bhature. In Kerala, it’s a popular breakfast food, known as Kadala Curry. A Pakistani variation called Aloo Chole enriches the dish with potatoes, so it makes for a more substantial meal. Kick it up further with the Lahore twist on the dish, adding chicken – also a favourite for breakfast. In my next life, I’ll open a Punjabi breakfast diner.
The many names aside, once you’ve got the spice mix, the rest is pretty straightforward. Well, until you factor in that this has been called the “most popular vegetarian dish on the subcontinent” (and the subcontinent has a lot of vegetarians), and when I learn that there are so many regional variants (as well as names by which the same basic dish is known), and so many potential twists that one family or another might add in, that to find a core recipe is a bit tricky.
If you have the time and will to make the chickpeas from scratch, many swear by soaking them in water along with a black teabag. I’m a man of great enthusiasm but little time and patience, so I’m settling for canned chickpeas, though I can imagine the tea infuses a nice smokiness (I’ll try it when my two kindergarteners are eighteen and out of the house).
How to make Chana Masala recipe
Chana masala is built first upon sautéed onions (most recipes want them pureed), green chili, garlic and ginger. You can’t go wrong with this foundation—sautéed cardboard would probably be delish with this on top. Then in come tomatoes, hence the ratatouille reference, which should be pulped, not sliced or chopped. Add the spices, sauté, and then the chickpeas and you’re basically there. The whole should simmer for at least 20 minutes, to infuse the flavours fully. Lemon juice at the end, with optional dash of yogurt.
I end up with a delicious dish that I want to spread on, well, gluten-filled bread. It feels more like a dip than a meal to be spooned. It’s wonderful, but I can see why it’s considered more of a snack. Next time I’ll flesh it out a bit more, with potato or chicken or bhatoora. I’m also somewhat suspicious that my spice mix may not be so authentic. It’s good, sure, but there’s a danger in experimenting with world cuisine, the originals of which I’ve not tasted, when I’m camped out in central Europe. But nothing ventured, nothing gained, right? Whether or not my chana masala is authentic, it sure is good, and I’ll be making it again. If only I could find some black salt…