Chana masala is an Indian restaurant favourite of mine. Heck, I’ll eat basically anything with chickpeas, but there’s something about the simple rich spiciness that makes chana masala particularly good.
I’ve cooked it twice in five days now, because the first round didn’t quite nail it. For round two – which worked – I went back to a basic recipe, built around a very simple curry gravy. Then, predictably, I lost my keeping-it-simple nerve at the end, and threw in a load of paneer.
In my defence, paneer is pretty great.
My first stab at this dish was a bit fussy and elaborate, and I buggered up the spice balance. It came off too harsh and medicinal from the cloves and cardamoms. There was a note of too-raw onion, too, from the onion puree I was hoping would work to thicken.
Thicken it did, so I was loathe to drop the technique, but if you’re chucking in a giant dollop of pureed onion, garlic, and ginger, you probably want to cook it out more. So that stayed, and I went right back to the simplest masala sauce I could look up quickly.
This is more-or-less cribbed from Camelia Panjabi’s book, 50 Great Curries of India, which is has one of the better introductions I’ve read to curry sauces and spicing.
Oh, and the whole paneer thing. I put paneer in. Because I’m fucking obsessed with cheese. You can leave it out if you like.
- 3 small tomatoes
- A couple of onions
- Chickpeas (2 tins in this case)
- 1 tsp ground coriander
- 1/2 tsp tumeric
- 1/2 tsp cumin
- 1/2 tsp garam masala
- 1 tsp paprika
- Fresh coriander
There’s a little bit of fussing here, but I do believe it’s worth it for the eventual texture and depth.
Slice a large onion and fry it in oil and butter, slowly, until it’s really really brown. This should be done slow and low so the onion softens into nothing and the colour builds up. You’re looking at about 30 minutes.
Fine-chop or puree the tomatoes. With a blender, puree the remaining onion (a small one, ideally) with a couple of garlic cloves and the ginger. Set to one side. Slice the chilli. Measure the spices if you like, there’s plenty of time. You can dice the paneer and shred the coriander too if you’re bored.
When the onion is mostly done, crank up the heat a little and add the onion puree mix along with the chilli. Fry off most of the liquid and make sure it’s cooked through and fried to the point of not having a raw edge. A few minutes, or so.
Add the spices. Don’t let them burn, but cook them off for a minute or so, keeping them moving in the oil. Add a splash of water, and make sure you’ve got all the caramelised onion and spice paste off the bottom of the pan. Then add the tomatoes, most of the coriander, and the chickpeas. Let it all simmer very low, until the sourness of the tomato is largely cooked out. Adjust the thickness however you like. At the end, add the paneer cubes to warm through for a couple of minutes, and serve sprinkled with coriander.
This is great with bread, just as a veggie main. But you can do it just as well as a side. The paneer is, of course, optional, and I actually think seared halloumi would work better. The dark fried onion collapses into the sauce as the main thickening agent, but the puree really helps, and maintains some of the actual onion flavour rather than just a dark sweetness. The spices are simple and gentle – in fact you could easily ratchet up the cumin if you wanted something bigger. Or just use more of each, it’s a fairly restrained masala. Chilli here is to taste, and you can skip it entirely if you’re some kind of coward.