When you google the term 'Chana Masala' you come up with various recipes for Indian curried chickpeas which sadly make no mention of the masala that is key to making your chickpea dish scream authentic.
Masala is an interesting term in my culture and language. For the most part, it can mean two different things. First and foremost, it refers to a dry mixture of spices, that when used with certain ingredients give your dish a taste of authenticity. It can also refer to a wet base of ingredients, which when added to key ingredients, spices and water, will make a delicious curry. Typically, Punjabi wet masalas or gila masalas are made from ground onion, ginger, garlic, and tomatoes. Basically, a curry starter.
To make good Punjabi Chana Masala (the dish) you truly need a mixture of spices that includes tart ingredients from dried pomegranate seeds, carom seeds, to dried mango powder to give you the complex flavors that make any really delicious chana masala dish. You can certainly add these individual spices and ingredients into your dish, or make a mixture (masala) with them that when used gives your chickpeas the right taste. Even we in the know prefer to have a pre-prepared spice mixture so we are not constantly reaching for all of those individual spices and ingredients.
Don't worry, there are lots of options. You can make this dish without the chana masala spice blend I recommend by substituting garam masala (see notes below and my post on this key North Indian spice blend), you can make your own chana masala (see recipe below), or you can purchase a quality chana masala from your local Indian grocery store or right here on Indian As Apple Pie. Bottom line, try this recipe with or without - but know that having the right blend of spices will make your dish one that will go up against any Indian restaurant menu. Also, I know this is doubly confusing, but keep in mind that the spice blend and the dish go by the same name - chana masala.
Ready to start? Here's your Mise en place. Clockwise from the left, we have ground ginger and garlic, tomatoes, green Thai chiles, Chana Masala, chopped onion, the Spice Tiffin with my key spices (garam masala, red chile powder, and salt), and cooked chickpeas.
Keep in mind, I never ever used canned chickpeas because cooking from dried is tastier, a cinch, and much cheaper - but you can go that route if it's easier. Remember, I'm not here to judge you, just to encourage you to switch things up. When cooking from dried keep in mind you will need to soak them overnight.
Punjabi Chana Masala: Curried Chickpeas
Yield: 9 cups
3 cups kabuli chana (dried white chickpeas), picked over, washed, soaked overnight, and drained
8 cups water
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/2 teaspoon hing (asafoetida), optional
1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder
1 heaping teaspoon cumin seeds
2 tablespoons chana masala (see recipe and note below) *
1 medium yellow onion, finely minced
1 tablespoon water, plus more if needed (optional)
1 (2-inch) piece ginger, peeled and grated or minced
6 cloves garlic, peeled and grated or finely minced
1 large tomato, finely diced
1-6 fresh Thai, serrano, or cayenne chiles, stems removed and diced
1 teaspoon garam masala
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon red chile powder or cayenne pepper
1. Combine the chana and the 8 cups of water in a heavy-bottomed 6-quart or larger stockpot or Dutch oven over medium-high heat and bring to a boil. I cannot say enough about my love for my Le Creuset. It's totally worth it to invest in a heavy Dutch oven like this.
2. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, partially covered, for 45 minutes to 1 hour, until the chickpeas soften. Remove from the heat, cover, and set aside to cool slightly.
3. Drain the chana and reserve the chickpea water. Keep about 4 cups - discard the rest. If you don't have that much, make up the difference with water.
4. In a 6-quart saute pan, heat the oil. Add the asafoetida if using, turmeric, and cumin seeds. Cook for 40 seconds. Add the chana masala and stir well for about 30 more seconds.
5. Add the onion and cook for about 2 minutes, mixing. If the mixture gets dry I add a little water a tablespoon at a time. Add the ginger and garlic and cook for another minute.
6. Add the tomato and fresh chiles. Cook for 2 minutes. You'll start to see the oil pull away from the edges. Add the garam masala, salt, and red chile powder and stir until combined. Here's how it will look. Sorry, this picture is a little funny - it got turned to its side - I'm trying to figure out how to fix it.
7. Slowly add the reserved liquid to the saute pan. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer for 5 minutes, until the mixture slightly thickens.
8. Add the chickpeas and simmer, stirring occasionally for about 10 minutes. There should be some liquid to this dish.
9. Serve with roti, naan, or basmati rice.
* If you don't have chana masala on hand but want to make this recipe, just use 2 tablespoons of garam masala and eliminate the 1 teaspoon mentioned further down in the recipe above. I was compelled to offer up my own spice blends after not being impressed by the taste, unnecessary salt, and dyes that some others were adding. Purchase mine if you would like from my website or make your own. What is in my jar is exactly what you see below. Putting it in a jar and selling it was truly only a way to save all of you time. My spice blends are currently on the shelf in the Chicago area at Whole Foods and Marcel's Culinary Experience, but if you want your local retailer to stock them, just let them know and send them my way. I can make it happen!
Chana Masala Spice Blend
1/4 cup coriander seeds
1/4 cup cumin seeds
1/4 cup dried pomegranate seeds
2 teaspoons black mustard seeds
2 teaspoons fenugreek seeds
10 whole cloves
2 black cardamom pods
4 green cardamom pods
3 (3-inch) sticks cinnamon
1 teaspoon ajwain (carom seeds)
1 tablespoon whole black peppercorns
5 medium cassia or bay leaves, broken into pieces
10 whole dried red chiles, broken into pieces
1 tablespoon kasoori methi (dried fenugreek leaves)
2 tablespoons amchur (dried mango powder)
1 tablespoon dried ginger powder
1 tablespoon kala namak (black salt)
Combine all spices up to and including the kasoori methi in a shallow, heavy pan over medium heat and dry roast for 4 minutes. Remove from the heat to cool. Mix to prevent burning.
Placed the cooled spices in a high power blender like a Vita Mix or in spice grinder. Add the remaining ingredients and process until smooth. If your grinder is smaller, do this in batches.
Store in an airtight glass container for up to 6 months. Makes 1 1/2 cups.