Have you ever been transported back in space and time, to a place now lost to you forever, by a jog to the senses: word, a sight or taste? For me, a simple Channa Masala brings back memories of chilly days, school girl braids and a little shop selling “bun samosas”.
Imagine if you will, a town at the foothills of the Himalayas. Blooming trees of orange Gul Mohar, aptly named “Flame of the Forest”, intermix with the softer purples of the Jacaranda tree. A rickety school bus drives us across dry river beds to town, which unexpectedly boasts an eminent collection of historic schools: the Doon School, Welhams, Convent of Jesus and Mary, and my alma mater, St. Thomas Day School. Some days, snow melting in the mountains sends unpredictable torrents of cold and clear water across the roads, forcing the bus driver to turn back- to the raucous cheers of those incarcerated inside! In a corner of the dusty school ground, is a little cafeteria selling toffee, gum and the delectable “bun samosa”. This consisted of a soft round bun, sliced only partway through, stuffed with a pea and potato samosa and served with a messy helping of Channa Masala dribbled over the open top. How I envied those with both parental blessing and pocket money to indulge in this warm and spicy comfort food! Instead, I had my buttered sandwich (albeit cut into pretty triangles) and my mother’s paranoia of school yard germs as cold consolation.
Channa Masala (also known as Chole) is simple enough to be made a dozen different ways. I doubt that I make it the same way twice. Sometimes, I add tomato paste for a more intense flavor and color. Other times, I finish with a swirl of cream, to bring out the silky smoothness of the chick peas. Here is one version.
• You can use canned chickpeas, but it’s easy to cook your own. Just submerge a cup of dry chickpeas in water overnight or before you leave for work. Because chickpeas are essentially bland, I layer in spices: to the cooking water, add a bay leaf or two, one clove of garlic, a few whole peppercorns and cloves, a pinch of coarse salt and turmeric. A quick drizzle from my oil dispenser and the chickpeas are ready to be blasted in my ancient pressure cooker. Of course, you can also cook them directly on a stove top; you’ll know they’re done when softened. (I also cook a couple of whole potatoes in the pressure cooker, along with the chickpeas.)
• Next, add the aromatics: onions, garlic, ginger and green chillies (more or less to taste). Chop finely by hand or using a few pulses on a food processor.
• Saute the mixture on high heat initially, stirring frequently. This rapidly releases the endogenous water content of the onions before you begin the caramelisation process.
• Once the onion mixture loses much of its water, turn down the heat and continue to cook for about 10 min. until it comes together in one caramelized mass of sweet goodness.
• While the onions are reducing, cube the boiled potatoes.
• Freshly grind some whole spices: I used about a tsp each of cumin and fennel seeds, a tbsp of coriander seeds, a smattering of peppercorns and a clove or two.
• Give it a quick whirr in a spice grinder or spare coffee grinder. If you have neither, use a mortar and pestle with safety goggles 🙂 Needless to say, substitute with coriander powder, cumin powder and garam masala.
• Dice a couple of red tomatoes.
• Add the chickpeas with their cooking water, tomatoes, potatoes and spices to the onion mixture. Season with more salt if needed, a dash (or more!) of chilli powder/cayenne pepper, and a pinch of sugar for balance. Simmer, simmer, simmer.
• Before removing from heat, add the juice of half a lemon and some chopped cilantro/coriander leaves.
• Serve with a simple pea pulao or with Naan bread.
Perhaps, one day I will return to the town of Dehradun, now an important capital of the new Indian state of Uttarakhand, if only to look for the little cafeteria at the corner of the school ground. I doubt it’s still there, and I probably never will return to that northern outpost of my homeland where I spent my middle school years. But I can always concoct up some chickpeas for comfort.