My friend Antara tells me that she can’t cook. “It’s too stressful,” she tells me when I try to probe. “I should have ordered in,” she laments, when we arrive at her home, although an appetite whetting smell of roasted onions, ginger and garlic lingers tellingly in the air.
“What did you make?” I ask, curious to see what someone who claims they can’t cook, would make. I barge into her kitchen and peer into a pot of simmering kala chana or whole Bengal gram, which resemble small dark brown chickpeas. They look hearty and wholesome and tender, perfect nourishment for a late fall lunch. Home-cooked food speaks to me of love, and I deeply touched that my friend has cooked for me. Also, unbeknownst to her, I love this dish but have no idea how to make it. When we sit down to eat, the perfectly seasoned chana melts in my mouth, tasting of old memories and growing up in Calcutta.
“So how did you do it,” I ask, intrigued and impressed by her foray. “I followed a recipe and adjusted it,” she reveals, and continues to tell me how always following a recipe makes her feel somewhat inadequate as a cook. “What about andaz” she questions, referring to the Indian habit of cooking by estimation, just instinctively throwing things into the pot, stirring, tasting, adjusting, and reaching the perfectly delicious concoction. Every good Indian cook that we know from a previous generation cooks perfectly by andaz. Their recipes can’t be written down, and it’s always a pinch of this and a handful of that.
Fast forward into modern times where most of us hapless females were shooed out of the kitchen by our mothers and actively taught not to cook, none of us seems to have any sense of andaz. I’ve been through the same agony of not knowing why more coriander powder and less cumin powder, and when garam masala, so I’ve succumbed to recipes too. I’ve had to stand with teaspoons and tablespoons and cups as my mothers have cooked. I’ve learned to re-read recipes each time I start to make the dish, despite having made the dish many times before. It’s easy to forget one tiny detail, and although the result is usually edible, there’s always that feeling that something is not quite right. I’ve also taught myself to write down recipes as I make them. In the absence of andaz, a good recipe, comforting in its consistency, has had to suffice.
In honor of Antara’s home-cooking, here is her fantastic kala chana recipe.
Antara’s Kala Chana
1 cup dry kala chana, also known as Bengal gram or black chickpeas
1 cup onions, chopped
1 tbsp garlic, finely minced
1 tbsp ginger, finely minced
1 cup tomatoes, chopped
a small handful of coriander leaves, chopped
2-3 green chillies, optional, (omit if cooking for children)
2 tbsp oil
2 tsp coriander powder
1 tsp cumin powder
1/2 tsp dry mango powder known as amchur
1/2 tsp turmeric powder
1/2 tsp garam masala
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper powder, optional (omit if cooking for children)
Salt to taste
1. Soak the kala chana overnight (6-12 hours). Discard the water, and place in the pressure cooker. Fill with water that is a 1/2 inch above the chana. Cook until soft. With pressure cookers, I’ve found that one has to understand the idiosyncrasies of one’s own cooker and figure out how long it takes. Usually 4 whistles on medium heat work or 2 whistles on medium heat, combined with 15-20 minutes thereafter on low heat. Drain the chana and save the liquid for cooking.
2. While the chana is cooking, heat the oil in a large saucepan on medium heat. Add the onions first, and cook until golden-brown, stirring frequently. Next, add the chopped ginger and garlic and fry for a few minutes, taking care that the ginger and garlic don’t burn. Add the green chillies at this time if using.
3. Add the chopped tomatoes along with all the dry spices. Mix well and cook until the oil floats on top, stirring frequently. This takes a while.
4. Add the boiled chana, some of the reserved liquid, and the chopped coriander. Simmer on low heat for 10-15 minutes. Serve hot with rice or rotis.