Channa Masala Recipe

Plump chickpeas bathed in a spicy and tangy tomato sauce.

Channa masala and white rice on a blue plate decorated with white lines. The plate is on a dark blue surface.

Serious Eats / Mateja Zvirotic Andrijanic

Why This Recipe Works

  • Adding baking soda to the onions helps them break down and caramelize faster.
  • Doctoring up store-bought garam masala with additional spices produces a flavor that's both complex and suited to the dish.
  • Simmering canned chickpeas lends them plenty of flavor.
  • Grinding the garlic in lemon juice helps prevent it from turning too sharp and pungent, while still allowing its aroma to shine.

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.

With Onions, the Browner the Better

Almost all channa masala recipes start with an aromatic base of onions, garlic, ginger, and chiles. 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.

Cumin and mustard-seed flecked onions caramelizing in a large saucepan.

Serious Eats / J. Kenji López-Alt

As I stared into my pot of caramelizing onions, a we've seen this 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.

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 chiles 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.

Garlic-ginger paste is added to the caramelized onions and spices.

Serious Eats / J. Kenji López-Alt

I liked the brightness of the freshly pounded garlic, ginger, and chiles 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 chiles, 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).

A graph entitled "Relative Allinase Activity vs pH." The X axis represents pH from 2 to 9. All pH above 7 is marked "more alkaline;" all pH below 7 is marked "more acidic." The y axis represents allinase activity expressed as a percentage. The graph shows that allinase activity increases linearly from ~28% at 3 pH to 100% at 6.5 pH. As pH increases to 8, allinase activity subsides, decreasing to ~62%.

Serious Eats / J. Kenji López-Alt

So this time, instead of pounding the garlic, ginger, and chiles 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 seeds, 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/chile 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.

Garam masala is stirred into the caramelized onion-garlic-ginger mixture.

Serious Eats / J. Kenji López-Alt

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

I really love the texture and flavor added by cumin and black mustard seeds 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.

Tomatoes, chickpeas, and water are added to the pan.

Serious Eats / J. Kenji López-Alt

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.)

Cilantro-strewn channa masala in a shallow serving bowl with ornate brass handles, apparently Turkish in origin. A dish of freshly baked naan is close at hand.

Serious Eats / J. Kenji Lopez-Alt

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.


Click Play to Learn How to Make Spicy and Tangy Channa Masala

April 2016

Recipe Details

Channa Masala Recipe

Prep 5 mins
Cook 50 mins
Active 50 mins
Total 55 mins
Serves 4 to 6 servings

Plump chickpeas bathed in a spicy and tangy tomato sauce.


  • 4 medium cloves garlic, roughly chopped

  • 1 (1-inch) knob ginger, peeled, roughly chopped

  • 1 to 6 green Thai chiles (to taste), roughly chopped

  • 2 tablespoons (30ml) juice from 1 lemon, divided

  • Kosher salt

  • 2 tablespoons (30ml) vegetable oil or ghee

  • 2 teaspoons (8g) black mustard seeds

  • 1 teaspoon (4g) whole cumin seeds

  • 1 large onion, finely diced (about 1 1/2 cups; 300g)

  • 1/4 teaspoon (1g) baking soda

  • 2 teaspoons (8g) ground coriander

  • 1/2 teaspoon (2g) freshly ground black pepper

  • 1/2 teaspoon (2g) ground turmeric

  • 1 1/2 teaspoons (6g) store-bought or homemade garam masala, divided

  • 1 (14-ounce) can whole peeled tomatoes

  • 2 (14-ounce) cans chickpeas, drained and rinsed

  • 1 cup cilantro leaves, roughly chopped (1 ounce; 25g)


  1. Combine garlic, ginger, chiles, 1 tablespoon lemon juice, and 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt in a mortar and pestle or in the small work bowl of a food processor and pound or process until a fine paste is produced. Set aside.

    Garlic, ginger, chiles, 1 tablespoon of lemon juice, and ½ teaspoon of kosher salt processed into a fine paste inside a mortar and pestle.

    Serious Eats / Mateja Zvirotic Andrijanic

  2. Heat oil or ghee in a large saucepan or Dutch oven over medium-high heat until shimmering. All at once, add mustard seeds and cumin. They will sputter and spit for a few seconds. As soon as they are aromatic (about 15 seconds), add onion all at once, along with baking soda. Cook, stirring frequently, until onions start to leave a brown coating on bottom of pan, 3 to 4 minutes. Add 1 tablespoon water, scrape up browned bits from pan, and continue cooking. Repeat this process until onions are a deep brown, about 10 minutes total.

    A four-image collage. The top left image shows mustard seeds and cumin frying in oil inside of a Dutch oven. The top right image shows onion and baking soda added to the Dutch oven. The bottom left image shows the fond (the brown bits stuck to the bottom of the Dutch oven) being scraped up by a wooden spoon. The bottom right image shows the contents of the Dutch oven now cooked and deeply browned.

    Serious Eats / Mateja Zvirotic Andrijanic

  3. Immediately add garlic/ginger/chile paste all at once and stir to combine. Add coriander, black pepper, turmeric, and 1 teaspoon garam masala. Stir until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add tomatoes and crush them using a whisk or potato masher. Add drained, rinsed chickpeas and cilantro, reserving a little cilantro for garnish. Add 1/2 cup water.

    A four-image collage. The top left image shows garlic, ginger, chile paste, coriander, black pepper, turmeric, and 1 teaspoon of garam masala added to the deeply browned onions inside the large Dutch oven. The top right image shows the paste and seasonings stirred into the onions. The bottom left image shows tomatoes crushed inside of the Dutch oven, with a potato masher in the shot to show how they were crushed. The bottom right image shows drained and rinsed chickpeas, cilantro, and ½ cup of water added to the contents of the Dutch oven.

    Serious Eats / Mateja Zvirotic Andrijanic

  4. Bring to a simmer, cover with lid slightly cracked, and reduce heat to maintain a gentle bubbling. Cook, stirring occasionally, until liquid has reduced into a thick stew and spices have melded, about 30 minutes.

    A two-image collage. The top image shows the channa masala brought to a simmer inside of the Dutch oven. The bottom image shows a wooden spoon lifting some of the channa masala to demonstrate that it has thickened.

    Serious Eats / Mateja Zvirotic Andrijanic

  5. Stir in remaining garam masala and lemon juice. Season to taste with salt. Serve with rice and/or naan, sprinkling additional cilantro on top.

    A close-up of the interior of the Dutch oven holding the channa masala. There is a wooden spoon with a portion of garam masala spice on top of it, showing that the spice is about to be stirred into the finished dish.

    Serious Eats / Mateja Zvirotic Andrijanic

Special Equipment

Mortar and pestle or food processor

Read More

Nutrition Facts (per serving)
229 Calories
8g Fat
34g Carbs
9g Protein
Show Full Nutrition Label Hide Full Nutrition Label
Nutrition Facts
Servings: 4 to 6
Amount per serving
Calories 229
% Daily Value*
Total Fat 8g 10%
Saturated Fat 1g 3%
Cholesterol 0mg 0%
Sodium 633mg 28%
Total Carbohydrate 34g 12%
Dietary Fiber 9g 33%
Total Sugars 8g
Protein 9g
Vitamin C 15mg 76%
Calcium 97mg 7%
Iron 4mg 21%
Potassium 536mg 11%
*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.
(Nutrition information is calculated using an ingredient database and should be considered an estimate.)