My family moved to Calgary in 1984, and settled into one of the myriad small apartments that make up the Beltline neighborhood. The managers of the building were a very nice couple from Pakistan, and since they had a young son around my age, our respective families became friendly. Every now and then, they would have us up for dinner and a movie (they had one of those newfangled VCR’s). These meals were my first introduction to the cuisines of India and Pakistan, and to the movies of Bollywood. The movies didn’t make much of an impression on me, (I don’t speak Hindi), except for one: “Sholay”.
“Sholay” is arguably the most popular movie in the history of Bollywood cinema. It broke box office records; turned the film’s lead, Amitabh Bachchan, from a star into a superstar; and changed the way films were written and produced in India from then on. (In other words, this movie was like a combination of “Star Wars” and “The Matrix”, with a little bit of “Once Upon A Time In The West” thrown in for good measure.) To a young, impressionable five year old like me (ugh, i’m so old), it was a whirlwind of gunfights, cheesy dramatic music, ultra-violence (seriously, one of the main characters is shown getting his arms chopped off with a machete), and as is common for Bollywood films, a bunch of carefully choreographed song-and-dance routines. (I guess you can throw in “West Side Story” to that movie list too.)
“Sholay” was also one of the first-and most important- of the masala genre of Indian films. These films blend other genres such as comedy, action, music, and romantic melodrama, to create something with a unique flavour and wide appeal. This brings us to masala, the ubiquitous spice mix(es) used throughout Indian cuisine. There are many different masala recipes, often based on regional and personal taste. Garam masala is probably the most familiar, and most widely used of these spice mixtures. A blend of ground sweet and savoury spices, garam masala is used in a variety of Indian dishes, including that popular and tasty favourite: cholay (aka. chana masala).
Chana masala (which in Hindi means spiced chickpeas) is a dish that I feel reflects the nature of Indian movies such as “Sholay”. At their hearts are a simple ingredient, ( in the movie’s case it’s a revenge story, with cholay it’s chickpeas), which is then enhanced with various other elements to create a unique product that seems like it should be a giant mess, yet somehow it works. The most important part to remember is that each element in the whole has to be allowed to stand out to create the depth required for the finished product.
There are many different regional iterations of chana masala, most of which contain the same ingredients: chickpeas, garam masala, onions, tomatoes, chilli peppers, garlic, ginger, and some type of sour flavouring (such as tamarind). I prefer to make chana makhani, which has a more creamy texture and flavour, and pairs quite nicely with basmati rice. Many recipes use amchoor powder, which can be difficult to find outside of an Indian spice shop. I find that lime juice and zest work just fine, and are more readily available. I like to use canned chickpeas to reduce the amount of cooking time.
(Prep time: 15 minutes. Cook time 30 minutes. Serves 3-4.)
- 2 tbsp canola oil (or ghee)
- 1 tsp cumin seeds
- 1 tsp mustard seeds
- 1 small yellow onion, chopped
- 1 tsp kosher salt
- 1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and chopped
- 1 knob of ginger, 1″x 1″, peeled and roughly chopped
- 3 cloves of garlic
- 2 tbsp garam masala (my recipe can be found here)
- 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
- 1/4 tsp ground white pepper
- 1 398 mL can diced tomatoes (approx. 1 1/2 cups)
- 2 540 mL cans chickpeas, drained and rinsed
- 1/4 cup cilantro, chopped
- 2 tsp paprika
- 1 1/2 tsp turmeric
- 1 cup cold water
- 1/2 cup half & half
- 1/2 cup raw cashews
- 1 1/2 tsp kosher salt
- 1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
- 1 tsp honey
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 lime, juice and zest
Heat the oil (or ghee) in a large sauté pan, over medium-high heat, then add the cumin and mustard seeds. Fry the seeds in the oil until the mustard seeds begin to crackle, then add the onions and 1 tsp of salt. Fry the onions with the seeds until the onions begin to brown, about 5 minutes. While the onions are frying, combine the garlic, ginger, and jalapeño with 1 tsp canola oil in a food processor or blender, and pulse until they form a rough paste. Add this paste to the fried onion mixture, and continue to cook for another 2 minutes. Now add 1 tbsp of the garam masala, and fry with the onion mixture until it is fragrant.
At this point, you can add the chickpeas, tomatoes, cayenne pepper, white pepper, paprika, turmeric, and cilantro. Reduce the heat to medium, and simmer the ingredients in the pan for 5 minutes. While the chickpeas simmer, quickly blend the half & half and cashews in your blender. Add the water to the pan, then slowly stir in the cashew milk. When the cashew milk is completely incorporated, add the rest of the ingredients, except for the lime juice, zest, and the rest of the garam masala. Cook the mixture for 10 minutes, until the gravy has reduced and thickened. While you wait, put on some Bhangra music, and have a dance party.
After 10 minutes, add the rest of the garam masala and lime juice and zest. Continue to cook the chana masala for another 10 minutes, to make the gravy nice and thick (chana masala is generally quite dry). Keep dancing, let the heady perfume from the pan envelop you!
Now, serve your glorious chana masala with lots of basmati rice, a little more chopped cilantro, and maybe some naan or roti. Remember, Indian food is eaten with the hand, so don’t be afraid to get right in there.
When you taste your chana masala, each unique flavour element should be identifiable, the sour from the lime, the sweetness of the tomatoes, the fresh herbaceousness of the cilantro, and the warm embrace of the garam masala, and cumin seeds. All of them there, all working together to create a sublime dish.
As I grew up, I learned to love and appreciate the culture and food of the Indian subcontinent. Maybe one day, I’ll come to appreciate Indian cinema as well. (Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s time for my song-and-dance number.)