The small town where I grew up does not have much going for itself in the way of authentic international food. There is a Mexican restaurant — I’m pretty sure these come standard in all little Midwestern towns — where you can purchase tacos or enchiladas served alongside cold liquid-y salsa. There are several Chinese restaurants, one a buffet, where dishes that are intended to be delicate and vegetable-forward are meat-centric and coated in sticky sauces that pool with oil and leave the consumer with a stomach ache. As a child, and even today, there are several dishes from these non-authentic restaurants that I quite like. They just aren’t the real thing. And as my travels and eating habits have expanded, I want the real thing. Or at least something close to it.
My childhood haven for authentically prepared cuisine from a culture that was foreign to me (a very specific type of haven, I know) came in the form of my dear childhood friend’s home. My friend is a first generation Indian American and her mother is a culinary master. She prepares beautiful meals for her family that left me, a kid who hadn’t eaten much outside of salt and pepper in the spice-department, nothing short of salivating. She keeps her kitchen fully stocked with bins of dried goods, spices, vegetables, and pastes ready to be crafted into brightly colored dishes that are as intoxicating to the eyes as they were to my stomach. Tuesday and I spent many afternoons watching TV or doing schoolwork at this friend’s home. Shortly after arriving, we’d often pull a big container of salsa, one of her mom’s specialties, out of the refrigerator. The salsa was so spicy to our underdeveloped taste buds that Tuesday and I kept a gallon of milk and two cups on hand while we munched on tortilla chips overflowing with the hot sauce. I remember having to run to the bathroom for tissues to wipe my nose and eyes. These flavors were completely new to me and unbelievably enticing. Visiting this home for dinner was a treat and culinary adventure; I simply couldn’t believe my mouth.
Now, let’s talk about dried beans and legumes. I know that they are somewhat intimidating, and Tuesday made a special request for instructions on how to prepare them. Let me first say: It’s incredibly easy and rewarding and you get a whole lot more bean for your buck! The following directions are specifically for chickpeas—also called garbonzo beans — but the process for cooking all beans and lentils is relatively similar. The main difference is in the cooking time and Google is pretty handy for figuring that one out. Here’s what to do:
Purchase chickpeas either from the bulk section of your grocery if they have one (you can bring your own container to fill up or use the plastic bags that are typically provided) or find them pre-packaged in 1 lb. containers near the canned vegetables. Once the chickpeas are home, rinse them in a colander and pick out anything that isn’t food; you may come across a stone or small bit of a twig. After you’ve sorted and rinsed the chickpeas, put them in a bowl and cover with several inches of water. The beans will expand as they soak, so be sure to allow enough excess to keep them underwater as they grow. Cover bowl with a towl and leave on the counter overnight.
The next day, re-rinse the chickpeas in a colander. Pick out any funny stuff that may have been missed during the first inspection. Dump the chickpeas into a large pot and pour water over top, approximately 3 cups of water per 1 cup of beans. Bring the water to a boil and continue cooking for 60 – 90 minutes to desired softness. When finished, scoop off any chickpea parts that have risen to the surface of the water and drain. Done!
Back to the main event. This recipe for chana masala is adapted from Smitten Kitchen who adapted her recipe from this guy who adapted his from Madhur Jaffrey. And though I’d never claim that this dish is the real thing, it’s a pretty damn good imitation.
- 1 tbsp. canola oil
- 2 medium onions, diced
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 in chunk of ginger, grated (I keep ginger frozen in a piece of parchment paper and cut off and grate a chunk when I need it; best way I’ve come upon to store it)
- 1 tbsp. ground coriander
- 4 tsp. ground cumin
- 1/2 tsp. ground cayenne pepper
- 1 tsp. ground turmeric
- 2 tsp. ground paprika
- 1 tsp. garam masala
- 1 28 oz. can diced tomatoes
- 2/3 c. water
- 4 c. cooked chickpeas (2 15 oz. cans will also work)
- 1/2 tsp. salt
- juice of one lemon
In a large pan over medium heat, warm canola oil and add onions, garlic, and ginger. While the onion/garlic/ginger mixture cooks, measure out spices and mix them in a small container. Add spices to pan and lower heat slightly. Stir to coat onions with spices and allow to cook for a few minutes. Stir in jar of tomatoes with juices, water, and chickpeas. Simmer for 15 minutes and add salt and lemon juice. Serve immediately on its own or over rice, or continue simmering to allow flavors to further combine.
Pro tip: This stuff is also pretty good on tortilla chips with a scoop of sour cream. Talk about inauthentic!