The allure of chana masala, arguably one of North India's most popular vegetarian dishes, is multifaceted. First, the visuals: Golden chickpeas glimmer in an orangey-red tomato sauce, with a small side salad providing a pop of green. Then, the fragrance: The aromas of spices, ginger, and garlic perfume the dish. Finally, the taste: The yielding, almost creamy chickpeas and feisty sauce are balanced by the freshness and crunch of onion, chile, and cilantro.
It’s also a practical dish, since it comes together easily and it calls for inexpensive, readily available ingredients.
To come up with my own version, I reviewed several recipes. Some started with dried chickpeas that required soaking, along with fresh tomatoes that had to be peeled and chopped, while others called for canned products. But once the ingredients were prepped, the method was similar: Fry a paste of onion, ginger, and garlic in oil. Stir in spices such as cumin, garam masala, and a mild chile powder (Kashmiri chile powder is traditional, but paprika is a common sub), and then add the tomatoes, chickpeas, and some water. Simmer until the chickpeas are soft and the sauce has thickened; then serve with rice, naan (or bhature; see “Bread on the Side”), and the salad.
But none of these versions matched the stellar examples I’d eaten in the past. Several seemed lean and austere, the kind of thing devout carnivores expect vegetarian food to be. In some, the chickpeas were so soft that they were escaping their skins; in others, they remained too snappy. And the dishes lacked the nuanced spice flavor and heady aroma that are the hallmarks of chana masala.
My first round of testing had yielded one happy discovery: There was no advantage in starting with dried chickpeas and fresh tomatoes. Canned chickpeas were not only nicely seasoned but also 90 percent of the way to the ideal tender but intact texture. And canned tomatoes were sweet and tangy—far better than the fresh ones available at the supermarket 10 months out of the year. I wanted a smooth sauce, so for my next batch I decided to puree canned whole tomatoes, which have a fresh flavor and break down readily in the food processor.
I moved on to the onion, ginger, and garlic. For this dish (and many other Indian dishes) these aromatics are ground to a paste to produce big flavor without a distracting texture. In many Indian homes, an appliance called a mixer grinder is used to do this job, but I used a food processor. While I was at it, I added the stems of the cilantro sprigs I had set aside for the salad, along with a serrano chile.
Bread on the Side
The rich and tender fried breads known as bhature are a common accompaniment to chana masala. If you’d like to make both recipes, first prepare the bhature dough and then prepare the chana masala through step 2. Next, portion, shape, and fry the bhature. Finally, finish the chana masala.
As the bread begins to puff on one side, gently press the unpuffed side into the oil until the bread is evenly inflated, about 20 seconds. Continue to cook until the bottom is light golden brown, about 10 seconds longer, and then flip the bread and cook on the second side, lightly pressing each side into the oil to ensure even browning, about 20 seconds.
I fried the paste in a tablespoon of oil until it was soft and brown and then added my spice mixture, which I had bolstered with fennel seeds and sweet, earthy turmeric for more depth. I added the drained chickpeas, the tomato puree, and 1 cup of water before letting it all simmer for 15 minutes.
I was making progress, but I wasn’t there yet. The turmeric and fennel had added depth, but I wanted more; plus, the dish was too lean. Increasing the oil from 1 to 3 tablespoons solved both problems: Besides adding richness, the extra fat emboldened the spices (fat carries flavor, especially the fat-soluble flavors in spices). It also contributed much-needed body to the sauce, though not enough.
The next time around, instead of draining and rinsing the cans of chickpeas, I added their contents—liquid and all—to the pan and omitted the additional water. Admittedly, it’s not canonical, but that liquid is full of proteins and carbohydrates, which boosted the savoriness and consistency of the sauce nicely.
The Missing Link
Still, the flavor wasn’t complex enough. It jumped straight from the earthy, foundational flavors of turmeric, cumin, and beans to the overt grassiness of the cilantro, chile, and onion, with nothing bridging the gap. A friend with a deep knowledge of Indian cooking guessed my misstep: “No garam masala?”
For Multidimensional Flavor, Stagger Spices
The European tradition generally calls for adding spices to dishes early on so that their flavors have time to diffuse throughout the food. But in Indian cooking, the approach is more nuanced. Though there aren’t any hard-and-fast rules, generally, the spices that are meant to permeate and offer background flavor—here, paprika, cumin, turmeric, and fennel—are added early. Spices that are meant to provide vibrant top notes—garam masala in this case—are added toward the end, as prolonged cooking drives off some volatile compounds.
I’d been adding it all along; the problem was that I’d been adding it too early. In Indian cuisine, the coriander, cinnamon, cardamom, and other sweet spices that make up the blend are valued for their vibrant flavors, so they’re often added at the end of cooking and sometimes even sprinkled atop a dish right before serving. Adding the spices late means that fewer volatile compounds are driven off, so their taste is more prominent. Indeed, holding the garam masala until near the end of the simmering time worked brilliantly, producing layered flavors. Speaking of layers, instead of serving the dish with a salad, I used the chiles, onion, and cilantro as a topping so that each bite would benefit. Once I’d set out a small bowl of lime wedges for additional tang, it was time to eat.
Because this dish comes together quickly, it is ideal for busy nights. But if you have the time, I recommend that you make the most delicious and traditional accompaniment: the puffed fried breads known as bhature.