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Chana masala is to North Indian cuisine what macaroni and cheese is to home kitchens in the U.S., according to Raghavan Iyer. No other dish symbolizes the region’s cuisine as well as the spiced garbanzo beans known both as chana (“beans”) masala (“spice mix”) or chhole.
All my life, I’ve been using chana masala and chhole interchangeably—and incorrectly, as one of the home cooks I spoke to astutely pointed out. Chhole is the saucy version, generally eaten with rice (together called chhole chawal, meaning chhole rice), whereas chana masala is the relatively dry dish eaten with breads like paratha and bhatura, a deep-fried, pillowy, soft thing of beauty. (That’s where the dish chana bhatura comes from.) For the purpose of this article, I’ve explored chhole primarily because it can be eaten with both rice and breads.
Whether chana masala or chhole, it’s made in almost every North Indian home, mostly for Sunday lunches, and for particular occasions and parties throughout India because of its easy scalability. It’s chhole’s popularity and ubiquitous presence at any India-related event that makes Indian cookbook writers feel wearily compelled, I think, to include it in their tables of content. I say wearily because I’ve been scarred by the excessively oily, spice-heavy chhole of Indian restaurants; this version, where the watery sauce and marble-like chickpeas are running away from each other—is close to “chhole” only in name.
Don’t be mistaken: I’ve had great chhole, too. A few years back, a friend’s mother-in-law made the best chhole I had ever eaten. It had just the right amount of spice, oil, and sauciness (good for eating with rice or paratha), and the chickpeas were soft enough to absorb the flavors. When I asked for the recipe, she looked at me as if I had asked her how to boil water: Chhole is so common, the recipe’s not thought to require much skill.
But as cooks know only too well, nailing a dish every single time is not easy. The simpler the dish, the more complex it can get—go figure! Armed with all this baggage and a firm resolve to heal my scars, I decided to venture into mastering the best recipe.
My strategy was the same as before:
- Pore over recipe books
- Speak to two home cooks of North Indian origin who can make it in their sleep, and
- Filter this newly-gained knowledge with my own experience
- To come up with a glorious recipe!
Read all about how I developed my reliably delicious chhole recipe, or skip straight to the final result:
- 1 1/4 cups dry garbanzo beans, soaked in water overnight or for 6 hours at least OR two 15 1/2-ounce cans of organic garbanzo beans
- 2 teaspoons salt, divided
- 2 black cardamom pods
- 4 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 2 green cardamom pods
- 1 bay leaf
- 2 pieces of cinnamon, 1/2-inch long
- 1 1/2 cups finely chopped red onion
- 2 tablespoons finely grated ginger
- 4 medium garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
- 1 green chile pepper, diced
- 2 cups diced tomatoes (1/2-inch pieces) or 1 to 1 1/2 cups diced canned tomatoes
- 1 pinch sugar
- 1/4 teaspoon turmeric powder
- 2 teaspoons coriander powder
- 1 1/2 teaspoons dry mango powder (amchoor) or 1 teaspoon lemon juice
Before I begin, let me tell you that I’ve been making reasonable chhole for a while now. Nothing that would win cooking competitions, but tasty enough. Based on my experience, the two main questions that needed to be tackled were…
- To use canned garbanzo beans or dry garbanzo beans soaked and boiled
- How to manage the spice mix: to use store-bought garam masala, ground fresh spice mix, or fresh, whole spices (cloves, cardamom, cinnamon)—or a combination of all three methods
- My Indian Kitchen, Hari Nayak
- Indian Home Cooking, Suvir Saran and Stephanie Iyness
- Vegetarian India, Madhur Jaffrey
Imagine my surprise when I discovered that all three recipes recommended using canned garbanzo beans. Only Hari Nayak offered dried chickpeas as an alternative. And the chhole versus chana masala confusion continued here, too: Hari Nayak called his dish chana masala, while Suvir Saran referred to it as chhole and Madhur Jaffrey chose a completely different name, roz ke chaney, meaning “everyday beans.” Each recipe resulted in a saucy dish, so I decided to stick to what my trusty home cook resource had told me.
All the three recipes turned out to be delicious:
- With generous use of fresh green chile peppers and dry red chile peppers and fresh ground spices like coriander, cumin seeds, and garam masala, Hari Nayak’s recipe was incredibly flavorful. But it was a tad heavy on spice, heat, ingredients, and steps. I wondered if the same result could be achieved with less effort.
- The highlight of Suvir Saran’s dish was the crushed, dried pomegranate seeds. I had never used them before and the tang and sourness they created was delightfully distinct from tomatoes and lemon, as Saran rightfully pointed out in the headnote.
- Madhur Jaffrey’s roz ke chaney was so simple, quick, and tasty that were it not for the simmering time at the end, it would have qualified as a 15-minute meal.
But my two questions remained unanswered and I decided to resort to my be-all-and-end-all resource: home cooks. This time I spoke to Sona Grover and Manika Sawhney, who both grew up in North Indian families.
- Sona and Manika had never used canned garbanzo beans and would not dream of adopting the convenience. I got my answer loud and clear. Manika had gathered from her mother that canned garbanzo beans do not absorb the flavors of the spices as well as soaked and boiled beans.
- Garam masala is optional in chhole according to Sona, which threw me off. I had been making mine with store-bought garam masala. But Sona’s recipe used whole spices, so just for kicks, I left out the garam masala myself, too—and the result was subtle and fresh.
- My previous chhole was only passable because I had used only store-bought garam masala: Using whole spices is a must. In Sona’s version, she did away with the garam masala and just used whole spices as well as a small quantity of coriander powder. The subtlety of flavor in this version really appealed to me and I decided to go this route in my final recipe.
- I tried Madhur Jaffrey’s recipe with canned beans and with dried home-cooked beans. The result was very clear: The beans that were soaked and cooked at home were more malleable, creamier, and tasted more at one with the spices. In short, it was as Manika said: They absorbed the spices better and each bean forgot its individual existence. The color was a rich, brownish red compared to the canned version, which were slightly pale. And while the canned beans tasted fine, there was an al dente quality that prevented them from surrendering to the spices.
Yes, soaked and cooked garbanzo beans taste better. But there is something to be said about the ultimate convenience of canned beans and I wanted to find a way to make canned beans closer in taste and texture to the soaked and boiled beans. So I tried an experiment...
- I drained a can of garbanzo beans, rinsed them under water, then boiled these beans with 2 cups of water, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1 black cardamom pod for 15 minute over medium heat, the same way that I would boil home-soaked garbanzo beans (but for much less time). The results were encouraging: The texture of beans improved significantly and they became creamy. Though I could not shake off the metallic canned taste completely, I believe the canned-boiled beans were now in a much better shape for their throw down.
- But when I made two batches of the exact same chhole—one with the canned and boiled beans and the other with dried beans that were soaked and boiled—the pot made with dried beans tasted much better. Even though I had wanted the canned and boiled beans to be as good as the dried ones, they hadn’t absorbed the spices as well, and they were paler in color.
- While the canned and boiled beans were inferior in flavor, however, their texture was on par with that of the dried beans, which I considered a small victory.
So here’s my solution for you busy cooks: In a time crunch, please feel free to use canned beans, but boil them for 15 minutes first. And on a weekend or a cooking day (I have these days when all I want to do is cook while listening to foot-tapping music, mostly Bollywood), start with dry garbanzo beans and the flavor gods will reward you.
Serve chhole hot with warm naan. For a Delhi-style condiment kick, as Manika recommends, serve red onion rings marinated in white vinegar for 4 to 5 hours on the side. Or take chhole for lunch the next day with brown or white rice or quinoa.
Happy to report that my chhole ailments are healed!