The Food Lab: Better Channa Masala With a World Tour of Techniques

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Chickpeas in a spiced tomato sauce. [Photographs: J. Kenji López-Alt]

As one of the most popular dishes in the world, both in and out of India and Pakistan, channa masala (or chana masala, chole masala, or chholay, depending on where you're from)—chickpeas cooked in a spicy and tangy tomato-based sauce—is the kind of dish that stirs passions in the recipe-writing community. Questions of what aromatics to use, how to treat the spices, and fresh versus canned tomatoes are grounds to completely disqualify a recipe from the fickle realm of authenticity. Of course, if you ask two people what constitutes an authentic version of the dish, you may get two opposite answers.

What I'm trying to say is that I, as a half-Japanese, half-white American male from the Northeast who has never been to India or Pakistan, am undoubtedly going to offend a couple of people with my idea of what great channa masala should be. But that's okay. My defense is going to be the only defense food should ever need: This stuff tastes damn good.

With Onions, the Browner the Better

Almost all channa masala recipes start with an aromatic base of onions, garlic, ginger, and chilies. The onions are typically browned until just before they start to burn and turn bitter. Unlike with a traditional French Onion Soup, in which the onions are cooked slowly enough to become candy-sweet in the process, here we're looking for browning with only mild sweetness. We also want the onion to break down fully, which helps lend body to the sauce later on.

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As I stared into my pot of caramelizing onions, a we've seen this s#&t before lightbulb went off in my head. In the past, I've explored methods designed to speed up onion caramelization, such as the addition of baking soda to increase pH, adding a touch of sugar, and using high heat combined with frequent deglazing. Using these processes, you can get darkly caramelized onions in a matter of minutes (here's a video that shows onions caramelizing in under 15).

The downside is that every one of those techniques has a side effect that, while minor, can affect the quality of a finished French onion soup. Adding baking soda causes the onions to lose their structure. Sugar can make things a little one-dimensionally cloying, while high heat gets you the browned flavors of the Maillard reaction but not the sweeter, butterscotch notes of caramelization. The good news is that for channa masala, we want our onions to break down and not get too sweet, which means that this is the perfect time to break out the baking soda and high heat.

Taming Garlic's Bite

The addition of garlic, ginger, and chilies varies quite a lot in different channa masala recipes. Some have you chop and sauté the aromatics with the onions, which leads to more sweet richness. Others have you pound them all together with a mortar and pestle into a fine paste that gets added just before the spices. This technique yields much brighter results.

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I liked the brightness of the freshly pounded garlic, ginger, and chilies as a way to contrast the deeper notes of the onions and spices, but, at the same time, I didn't want too much of the raw, pungent bite that garlic can have. You see the issue? Cook the garlic with the onions, and I lose freshness. Add them with the ginger and chilies, and I have too much bite. There had to be a solution.

I realized that I'd actually found the perfect solution just a couple of weeks back, when I was working on my recipe for hummus. In his book, Zahav, Michael Solomonov recommends blending garlic directly into lemon juice in order to tame its bite.

When garlic is crushed or cut, an enzyme it contains called alliinase activates and begins to create the compound allicin. Alliinase is highly active in neutral-pH environments, but it can be almost completely deactivated in lower-pH (more acidic) environments, like lemon juice. If I could deactivate the enzyme responsible for the harshness, I should be able to get plenty of fresh flavor from the garlic without destroying my breath (and, more importantly, my wife, Adri's, nose).

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So this time, instead of pounding the garlic, ginger, and chilies together alone, I tried pounding them with a tablespoon of lemon juice in the mortar and pestle, along with a pinch of salt (for its abrasive properties), then dumped the whole thing into the pot after my onions had sufficiently browned. It worked like a charm, giving me the best of both worlds.

I turned my attention to the spices next.

Maximizing Spices

Channa masala is a simple, home-style dish. Unfortunately, the average American home pantry is not quite the same as an Indian home pantry, which means that many of the spices need to be bought new, and some of the spices (like amchur—the dried mango powder found in some recipes) are near impossible to find. That turns a simple, inexpensive dish into a complicated and expensive one, especially if you don't often cook with these spices. I decided to limit my spice selection by starting with store-bought garam masala, a spice blend used to flavor curries and other Indian dishes, at both the start and the end of cooking. It varies quite a bit in its ingredients, but most store brands I've tried do just fine in a pinch. (Of course, if you want to go all out, here's my own garam masala recipe.)

I doctored up the store-bought stuff with a few extra common spices: Coriander seed, cumin, black pepper, and turmeric are all easy-to-find pantry staples. The only other spice I used that's not quite as common is black mustard seed.

With a garam masala that's going to be added straight to a liquid-based dish, the spices ought to be toasted before grinding in order to develop flavor and complexity. But for a dish in which the spices will be bloomed directly in oil, like in this recipe, pre-toasting is less of a priority. It certainly doesn't hurt to do it, but the effects on the resulting dish will be less pronounced. I made a couple of versions of the channa masala, adding ground spices directly to the pan while sautéing the ginger/garlic/chili mixture, before adding some canned tomatoes that I crushed by hand (canned tomatoes are so much better for cooked applications like this than most fresh tomatoes you can get) and a big handful of chopped cilantro leaves.

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It was pretty good, but needed a little more punch.

I really love the texture and flavor added by cumin and black mustard seed sizzled in hot oil—they flavor the oil, which in turn lends a nice earthy base to the entire dish—so I added that step to my recipe, heating oil, dropping in the spices, and letting them sputter before adding my onions to brown.

Use Canned Chickpeas

The last important question is what kind of chickpeas to use. I tried making the dish with both canned and dried chickpeas, certain that the latter would win out in texture and flavor. To my surprise, they weren't all that different. Dried chickpeas had the advantage of layered flavor (I cooked them in water with some aromatic vegetables and spices), while canned chickpeas are mostly bland inside. But, with a dish so packed with flavor, even a short simmer in the sauce for half an hour was plenty of time to get the chickpeas into full-on tasty mode.

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Channa masala can range in texture from almost soupy to dry enough that you can pile it up without a problem. I like it somewhere in the middle: just moist enough that it spreads into a bowl, but not so wet that you need a spoon to eat it. I let the curry simmer on the stovetop for about half an hour, adjusting the consistency with water as necessary. Just before I pull it off the heat, I finish it up with a little fresh lemon juice, some more chopped cilantro, and a dash more garam masala.

In northern India, spicy stewed chickpeas are eaten with kulcha, a small, leavened loaf of bread, but for me, homemade naan does just fine as an edible utensil. (You can also make that naan fully vegan by replacing the milk or yogurt with 13 ounces of water and 1 ounce of vegetable oil.)

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I love it when lessons I've learned from one cuisine come out of left field to help me improve a technique in a completely different cuisine. Who would have known that channa masala could be streamlined with a lesson from French onion soup, or mellowed out with a technique from Middle Eastern hummus?

So, is this dish gonna live up to your personal expectation of what channa masala is? Depends on whether or not you grew up eating the dish at home. As is often the case with these "every family has its own version"–type recipes, I fully expect someone to jump on me for not making the dish exactly like their grandmother did. I really should trademark the phrase "not your specific grandma's [X]" and save myself some of this trouble.

(And don't even start with me about serving an Indian dish in a Turkish vessel. I don't want to hear it!)