Chana is a few simple flavours interacting beautifully — sweet caramelized onions, sour tamarind and smoky toasted cumin and black cardamom. There is very little heat in this dish.
The caramelized onions are the cornerstone, though. So let’s talk onions.
Never ever use sweet onions (read: Spanish) in Indian food. The sweetness is overpowering and unappealing.
Begin your Indian dishes with plain old yellow cooking onions, or Indian onions if you can get them. Indian onions look like small red onions, but taste more pungent.
Slice off the tops and bottoms of the onions. Peel. Get rid of any tough outer layers.
Remove any hard bits of core. This can be done by cutting a wedge out of the centre (think about cutting V wedges out of apple slices to remove their seeds).
When to slicing, cutting the onions with the grain is key. To find the grain, halve an onion and lay it on your cutting board with the root end facing you. Slicing from root end to top end is slicing with the grain. Slicing with the grain helps the onions to soften during cooking.
Use butter or ghee to caramelize onions and be sure to use enough of it. I use 4 tablespoons for the 3 large onions in this recipe.
Heat the butter or ghee over medium heat. When you add the onions, reduce to low heat and add a dash of salt.
You need to stir the onions every 15 minutes or so. Don’t stir too often, or they’ll be mushy. When stirring, be sure to scrape the caramelized bits off of the bottom of the pot. Being lazy about this will leave you with a lot of burnt onion on the bottom of the pot. Not tasty!
After 35-40 minutes, a lot of water will come out of the onions. You can turn up the heat just slightly to help evaporate this water. Do continue to cook slowly, though.
The onions are caramelized when they become a very deep, rich dark brown.
Chana (Chole) Masala
For the cooked chickpeas:
1 cup dried chickpeas
water for soaking
4 cups water for cooking
1 black cardamom pod, broken
1 bay leaf, broken
Rinse the dried chickpeas in a bowl of water. Discard any that are discoloured or that float after stirring the water in the bowl. Discard the water.
In fresh water, soak the chickpeas in the fridge for 12 hours. Make sure to cover the chickpeas with a good inch and a half of water.
After 12 hours, drain soaking water.
Add 4 cups of water, the soaked chickpeas, the bay leaf and the black cardamom to a pot. Cook over medium heat, covered, for 1.5 hours.
Remove from heat.
Yield: approximately 3 cups cooked chickpeas
For the dish:
3 large yellow onions, sliced very fine
3 cups cooked chickpeas
2 tbsp garlic paste
2 tbsp ginger paste
1 medium plum tomato, diced small
golfball sized piece of tamarind pulp soaked in 1.5 cups of water
2 green cardamom pods
1-inch piece of whole cinnamon
2 tbsp whole cumin seeds
pinch of asafoetida powder (hing)
1 tsp garam masala
1 green chili, slit
1.5 tsp tosted cumin seed powder
2 tbsp chopped cilantro
ghee for cooking
chaat masala, raw onion, chopped cilantro and toasted cumin seed powder for garnishing
Caramelize the onions in a heavy-bottomed pot. Remove from pot.
Meanwhile, make tamarind water in a bowl by pouring 1.5 cups of boiling water over the golfball-sized piece of tamarind pulp. Cover the bowl and allow to sit for 15 minutes. Remove lid and stir up the tamarind until the water becomes a very dark brown. Strain out the pulp and pit pieces and reserve the liquid.
Heat 3 tablespoons of ghee in the pot. Fry the cinnamon stick over medium-low heat for 1 minute. Add the cardamom pods and fry gently until the cardamom puffs up and the cinnmon starts to unroll, about 3 minutes.
Add the whole cumin seeds and pinch of asafoetida powder. Fry gently until the cumin seeds start to crackle, about 2 minutes.
Add the ginger and garlic pastes. Fry just until the raw smell dissipates.
Add the caramelized onions and garam masala. Stir well. Keep stirring until the garam masala releases its aromas, about 3 minutes.
Add the green chili and the diced plum tomato. Stir. Cook until the tomato starts to break down, about 3 minutes.
Salt to taste.
Add the chickpeas and the tamarind water.
Cook over medium-low heat, covered, until the gravy becomes thick, about 40 minutes.
Stir in the toased cumin seed powder and chopped cilantro. Taste. Make sure that you can really taste the toasted cumin seed powder.
Adjust salt to taste.
Garnish and serve.