An Idiot’s Guide to making Channa Masala

Expectations (I did not make this). Image courtesy: www.seriouseats.com

Prologue

I made a New Year resolution this year to cook more and eat less outside. It’s been 3 months since the start of the year and I’ve cooked exactly 5 times. Not bad, eh? One of the things I’ve been meaning to try is to learn how to make signature Indian dishes. Partly because I want to learn how to cook the things I like to eat at restaurants, and partly because I want to have good answers when people ask me, “what dishes do you cook?” I’ve learnt from past experience that “I can cook rice” isn’t an impressive enough answer.

The challenge with signature Indian dishes (the ones you find on the menu of every generic Indian restaurant in the US) is that they look unhealthy and complicated to make. But I want to believe that if made in the right way, they are actually easy to make and fairly healthy. Essentially, I wanted to do the following:

  • Maximize healthiness
  • Minimize cooking time
  • Minimize cost
  • Minimize trips to the grocery store

Aha! This is a multi-objective optimization problem! The nerd in me leapt in joy.

A brief note about Channa Masala

Channa Masala is a spicy chickpea curry. It’s name quite literally translates to that— Channa means white chickpeas and Masala means a spicy, flavorful concoction. The dish is a popular export, perhaps, the most famous Indian dish, second only to Chicken Tikka Masala (which by the way is not Indian). It is also very popular in India. That shouldn’t come as a surprise since India is the world’s largest producer of chickpeas. We produce 10 times more chickpeas than the world’s second largest producer of chickpeas. That’s insane!

Look at that ginormous green dot over India. Source: Wikipedia

A post about Channa Masala will not be complete without singing praises to it’s single most important ingredient — Chickpeas. Let me categorically say that Chickpeas are badass.

They have a high protein content — for vegetarians like me, that’s like mana from heaven. They were one of the earliest cultivated legumes — people have been eating chickpeas for 7,500 years! They also have a Roman philosopher named after him. Booyah!

Roman philosopher Cicero — “cicer” in Latin means “chickpea”. It’s possible that Cicero came from an agricultural family that cultivated chickpeas.

Le Ingredients

I picked Channa Masala because intuitively, it seemed like a simple recipe. All you need is chickpeas, right? And some stuff to give it a curry-like consistency. And some mystery spices. Easy peesy. (Just to be sure that I don’t completely mess it up, I referred to a recipe on The Minimalist Baker, which is an excellent food blog, by the way)

  1. The Base Ingredient

I thought about getting loose “by-weight” chickpeas from the grains & legumes section at my local grocery store. That’s probably a healthier and cheaper alternative. But if I started with raw chickpeas, I would have to soak them overnight or put them in a slow cooker. Ain’t nobody got time for that.

So I picked the next healthier alternative — organic, locally-sourced canned chickpeas. No added sodium. No added colors or flavors. No high-fructose corn syrup. Definitely pricier. But also a huge time saver. Hey, you can’t win ’em all!

2. The Supporting Cast

To give the dish a curry-like consistency, I bought the following from my neighborhood grocery store:

  • A few tomatoes
  • One onion
  • A bunch of cilantro
  • A couple of serrano peppers
  • A few cloves of garlic
  • A small piece of ginger
  • A lemon (I was feeling really fancy)

3. Mystery Spices

Making a right spice mix is hard and I ain’t no fancy chef. So I decided to make do with “Garam Masala” — a commoditized, packaged spice mix that you can find in any Indian grocery store.

And oh, how could I forget Cumin. Cumin is great. Cumin is God. Long live Cumin!

The Algorithm

Cooking Chana Masala actually turned out to be an easy affair. It took me just 30 minutes to make the dish. 15 minutes to open the canned chickpeas and 15 minutes to actually make the whole dish. Yes, I have terrible life skills. Thankfully, I stumbled upon this Youtube video that taught me how to open a can with a Swiss Army knife. Achievement Unlocked!

Here’s the algorithm I followed to prepare the dish:

Phase 1 : Preparing the base (5 minutes)

  1. Turn on the stove, put your saucepan on it, drop a tiny bit of oil onto it.
  2. Throw some cumin seeds into the oil. (Cumin gives you the Godlike taste)
  3. Chop the onion into small pieces. (Onion gives you the crunchiness)
  4. Once the cumin starts crackling, throw in the onion pieces.
  5. Chop up a serrano pepper and add that into the mix as well. (Serrano gives you the spice kick)

Phase 2 : Preparing the “gravy” (5 minutes)

While the divine mixture of onion, peppers, and cumin roasts in the oil, focus your attention on the gravy.

  1. Slice the tomatoes. It doesn’t matter how the shape turns out. It’s going to go into a blender anyway. (Tomatoes give you the liquidy, tangy base)
  2. Chop a few cloves of Garlic. (Garlic drives the vampires away)
  3. Cut off a piece of Ginger. (It’s healthy)
  4. Chop off a handful of Cilantro leaves. (Get your greens in)
  5. Throw all this into a blender and crush the living daylights out of it.

Voila! You have a gravy.

Phase 3 : Put it all together (5 minutes)

At this point, the onion, peppers, and cumin mix would’ve sufficiently roasted. You can now throw everything in to your saucepan.

  1. Throw in the chickpeas
  2. Throw in the gravy
  3. Mix the concoction and let it heat for a bit.

Phase 4 : Garnishing (2 minutes)

  1. Throw in some turmeric powder (Turmeric will make your dish look more brown than red)
  2. Throw in some salt
  3. Taste the dish. If there isn’t enough salt, go to step 2.
  4. Throw in some Garam Masala
  5. Taste the dish. If it doesn’t seem flavorful enough, go to step 4.
  6. Squirt some lemon juice (Lemon is the antidote for salt)
  7. Sprinkle cilantro leaves (Because it’s cool!)

Boom! Your Channa Masala is ready. Enjoy it with rice.

You could also eat it with a bread — roti, naan, poori etc. But I have no idea how to make any of them. So, I’ll keep that for a future time :)

Reality (This is what I made)

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Srivatsan Sridharan

Srivatsan Sridharan

Engineering Manager. Part-time novelist. I write about travel, food, engineering, books, movies, and life.