Channa masala is a no-brainer when you’re ordering Indian takeout, especially if you’re a vegetarian. The Punjabi chickpea curry is a tantalizing balance of spicy, tangy and sweet, and it’s nutritionally unimpeachable. It also seems like one of those dishes that’s so uniquely flavored and intricately composed that it’s totally worth it to pay an expert to make it for you instead of endeavoring to make it yourself.
But this is a false impression that stems from most Americans’ ignorance of South Asian cooking conventions. Technique-wise, channa masala is as simple as any other stew; it requires chopping, simmering and stirring. What makes homemade channa masala challenging is getting the right balance of spice, acidity and sweetness. I have seen many recipes that purport to be simple yet authentic, containing only seasonings easily obtainable in American supermarkets: garlic, ginger, jalapeno, turmeric, cumin, coriander and lemon juice. Such recipes yield adequate chickpea curries – but they taste nothing like restaurant channa masala. That’s because making authentic channa masala requires a few ingredients you can’t get in American supermarkets: specifically, channa masala spice blend and amchoor powder.
Channa masala spice blend sounds like a copout, right? But it’s only as much of a copout as curry powder, or garam masala, or za’atar, or any other common packaged mixture of ground spices. It is simply a combination of the spices commonly used to make channa masala. Freshly ground spice blends have a stronger flavor than the packaged kind, but what you lose in potency, you gain in convenience. (That said, you can certainly make your own if you don’t mind having lots of leftover asafetida, pomegranate seed powder and fenugreek on your spice rack.)
Channa masala spice blends typically contain some amchoor powder, a sour dust made from under-ripe green mangos. But you will need to buy more amchoor powder, because that’s what gives the dish its pleasant tartness. Substituting lemon juice for amchoor powder, as is often done in Americanized channa masala recipes, is like swapping in a synthesizer for Hendrix’s guitar in “Purple Haze” and thinking no one will notice.
While you’re at your local Indian grocery store (or on Amazon), you may as well pick up some ginger-garlic paste, another staple of South Asian cooking. Absent ginger-garlic paste, you will have to mince and then mash fresh ginger and garlic. (Figure 3 inches of the former and 8 garlic cloves of the latter for this recipe.) This is not difficult, especially if you have a mortar and pestle, but it’s easier to scoop ready-made paste out of a jar, and the flavor doesn’t suffer one bit.
Once I had learned the right way to make channa masala – from a friend who is a devotee of the Vah Chef, YouTube’s premier Indian cooking expert – all these previously unfamiliar ingredients earned a permanent place in my pantry. The other ingredients in this recipe are easy to find – though three of them warrant a special note: You must start with dried chickpeas, not canned, if you want their texture to be as soft and tender as those in the best restaurant channa masala. Also, oil and sugar play crucial roles in harmonizing the spices. If for some reason your channa masala doesn’t taste as good as takeout, it’s probably because you’re not using enough of either.
PUT the chickpeas in a large pot and add enough water to cover them by 3 to 4 inches. If time allows, soak the chickpeas for 8 to 12 hours. Put the chickpeas over high heat and bring to a boil; reduce the heat to medium-high and cook until the chickpeas are tender, 1 to 1 1/2 hours if you soaked them, about 2 hours if you didn’t. When the chickpeas are mostly tender, add a few large pinches of salt to the pot.
MEANWHILE, put the oil in another large pot over medium heat. When it’s hot, add the cumin seeds and cook for 30 seconds. Add the onions and season with salt; cook, stirring occasionally, until they begin to soften, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the turmeric and jalapenos and continue cooking until the onions are tender, another 5 to 7 minutes. Add the ginger-garlic paste and cook, stirring occasionally, for another 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes, channa masala spice mixture, garam masala, cumin and sugar. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until the mixture is thick and saucy, about 30 minutes.
WHEN the chickpeas are tender, drain them, reserving about 1 cup of their cooking liquid. Add the chickpeas and the reserved cooking liquid to the tomato mixture. Simmer for 5 minutes, then stir in the lemon juice and amchoor powder. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Serve hot, over basmati rice and garnished with cilantro, if desired. (Leftover channa masala can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to several days.) Yield: 6 to 8 servings