On the Friday before our wedding my husband and I thought it would be nice to get together with some of our friends and family who had come to town early to sight-see, visit other friends, or help us with wedding preparations. Since several of our friends and family members are also Orthodox, Bru suggested we visit Udipi Cafe, an Atlanta restaurant that serves exclusively vegetarian food from Southern India. Dinner turned out to be perhaps more of an adventure than a resounding success. The menu was a bit difficult to decode for folks who were trying Indian food for the first time. Most people ended up with some type of curried vegetables served alongside a giant, crispy, cone-shaped pancake, with no instructions for how to eat it. There is a picture somewhere of my petite godmother looking quizzical and slightly amused, dwarfed by the giant crepe in front of her. I, however, was perfectly satisfied with my meal. I had the advantage of having eaten Indian food before (though not frequently), and, being in the midst of multiple major life changes, I stuck with the one thing I knew I liked. My chana bhature came as a bowl of flavorful-but-not-too-foreign-tasting chickpeas, a hot, golden-brown pillow of fried bread, and a generous slice of raw vidalia onion (we were, after all, in Georgia).
Indian food can be for everyone, but I think it helps to have some idea of what you are eating before you start. India, like China and France, takes food seriously, and its complex and varied culinary tradition has influenced what people eat far beyond its borders. (And best of all for Orthodox Christians, some parts of India have a rich, longstanding tradition of vegetarian and even vegan cooking.) Indian food is not difficult to make, and many recipes are available in English. Indian food blogs, however (of which there are many), can take a little while to navigate. There are so many ingredients to look up, and many recipes take for granted techniques or equipment that may be unfamiliar to an American cook. Adding to the complexity, since many languages and dialects are spoken in India, multiple words can be used in a single blog post to refer to the same food. For example, chana (channa), chole, gram, and kedala all refer to chickpeas. At the other end of the spectrum, a single word can have multiple meanings. Masala means both a mixture of spices and a dish that is flavored with a mixture of spices. So a recipe might call for adding some chana masala (spice mixture intended for flavoring chickpeas) to your pot of chana masala (spiced chickpea stew). For anyone who would like to try their hand at Indian food, what follows is a simple but authentic recipe, a good place to get your feet wet before you start searching ethnic grocery stores for exotic spices.
A quick internet search reveals that I was on to something when I kept ordering chana bhature. Chana bhature is apparently a favorite with many lovers of Indian food, and is a popular street food in India. The chickpea part of the meal is chana masala, a spicy chickpea stew or curry. The bhature is a kind of puffy, deep fried flat bread. The chana masala can also be served with Hot, Hot, Roti, any other type of Indian flat bread, or rice. There are many types of chana masala. I made the Punjabi version, with tomato and onion as the base of the sauce. Most chana masala recipes call for lots of spices (lots meaning lots, like anywhere from five to a dozen separate spices). I took my cues from this recipe, however, and used one main spice as the flavoring. It makes it easier for a beginner, but it is also fun to see what what an amazingly rich and complex flavor can be created using minimal and relatively familiar ingredients.
- 1 lb dried chickpeas (or about 3 cans, although cooking from scratch will create a better flavor and texture)
- 3-4 onions, finely chopped
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 tsp grated or finely chopped ginger
- 2 heaping teaspoons fennel seeds (you can substitute garam masala if you can’t find fennel)
- 3 large tomatoes, finely chopped
- 1/2 tsp paprika + cayenne to taste (this is optional – most recipes call for Indian red chili powder, which, as far as I can tell, is hotter than paprika but not as hot as cayenne)
- 1/4 cup finely ground fresh coconut or full fat coconut milk (also optional – only one recipe I saw called for the addition of coconut, so I don’t think it is a common ingredient in this dish, but if you are making it oil free then the fat in the coconut does add a little extra richness and flavor, without really making it taste like coconut)
- thinly sliced raw onion
- lemon or lime wedges
- fresh cilantro
1. Soak the chickpeas overnight (or for at least 6 hours). Cook at a low heat until they are soft but not falling apart. Or drain and rinse canned chickpeas, if using.
2. Chop onions. Heat a large pot over medium-high heat. Add oil if desired, or add onions straight to the pot with 1/2 tsp salt. Cook until onions are nice and brown (you may have to add a little bit of water every now and then if you are cooking them without oil). Add garlic, ginger, paprika/chili powder, and fennel seeds. Cook, stirring frequently, for a minute or two, until you can smell the garlic.
3. Stir in chopped tomatoes. Cook until the tomatoes start to break down (about 10 minutes). Add coconut, if using. If your tomatoes are not super juicy you can add about a cup of water.
4. At this point you have a choice. Some recipes call for letting the sauce cool a bit, and putting it through a food grinder (I use my food processor, or you could try an immersion blender) before returning it to the pot. Other recipes call for cooking the mixture a little longer, stirring with a wooden spoon to help everything break down and form a sauce. I like the smooth, almost fluffy, texture that comes from putting it in the food processor, but if you don’t have one or don’t want to bother with it, you can simply cook the onions and tomatoes for another 5-10 minutes.
5. Taste your sauce. You will probably want to add more salt at this point. You may also want to add more water. The sauce should be like a thick gravy. Add the chickpeas to the pot. Stir everything together and cook until evenly heated, about 5 minutes.
6. Serve with Indian flatbread or rice, and lots of raw onion, cilantro, and lemon or lime juice. Don’t skimp on the garnishes, they definitely add to the experience. Enjoy!
I have made vegan bhature twice, but my recipe definitely needs more testing before I share it. Most recipes call for yogurt, so you can try a regular recipe using cultured soy or coconut, like this one. A little extra work, but a delicious way to celebrate the weekend! I also made Aloo Gobi Masala (Spiced Potato and Cauliflower) as a side dish. You can try this recipe or this one. I looked at several and then made up my own.