Kala Chana: black lentil stew

Black chickpeas

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

Dry spices
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.

The First Naming

When I lift Agastya up to inspect my cooking, he looks at me expectantly.  I say “that’s matar paneer.”  He solemnly repeats the phrase “matar paneer” as if at a naming ceremony, and proceeds to ask for the dish by name several times, “Mommy, I want matar paneer,” as he grows hungrier in readiness for lunch.  I’ve realized that the hungrier he is, the more likely he is to try something new.  He seems to like the dish, and continues asking for it by name the next day and despite the fact that my addition of a little red chilli powder and garam masala has made the dish just a tad too spicy for him.  In these cases, I alternate the spoonful of vegetable with one of plain yogurt while feeding him to kill the fire.

Although I am very pleased that Agastya likes the matar paneer, what makes me even happier is that his name for the dish is set in stone now.  In Hindi words.  Not that there is an English alternative, but I feel extremely satisfied to hear the Hindi words rolling off his tongue.

I have suddenly realized that the opportunity to teach Agastya his mother tongue is rapidly waning.  I see it in the words for which he now refuses to learn the equivalent Hindi term.  For instance his favorite toy, a car is a car.  Not a gadi or a pum-pum as my baby brother used to say.  The act of first naming seems to freeze things.  Milk has remained doodh, water has remained pani and yogurt has remained dahi, even though he now knows the English words for all of those and uses them interchangeably.  Now I wish that I had just taught him Hindi words for everything to begin with.  Because the first Hindi words have remained sticky, despite the fact that the English ones didn’t take long to make an appearance.  He even remembers the silly nonsensical baby words that I used to use nai-nai for bath, ta-ta for hot and ninu for sleep.

I decide to inject lots of Hindi into my speech when conversing with both my husband and Agastya. There are occasional triumphs. At dinner, I hold out a glass of water and tell Agastya “Drink this, pilo” while we sit at the table.  He looks at me and giggles deliciously.  “Pilo means drink, pilo means take a sip mommy” he says slowly, taking the glass.  After taking a sip, he passes the glass back to me saying “pilo” with the same infectious giggle.  We continue to play the game, passing the glass between us, and saying “pilo!”  Suddenly he says “Mommy, peepee aya” and gets off his chair and runs to the bathroom.  Perhaps all is not lost.

Matar Paneer

Matar Paneer

This morning I wake up bright up and early.  I am going to make my mother-in-law’s matar paneer for the first time.  Her delicious recipe comes from various North Indian neighbors, such as “Singh Bhabhiji” from her old residential colony in Bombay.  So I call mummy who is back in Vizag to talk about the recipe.  We debate on ratios first, which is a wise thing to do as I have discovered in Indian cooking.  I have a packet of Nanak-branded paneer, which is about 400g or 2 cups of paneer.  Mummy thinks that 2 cups of peas should balance the two cups of paneer, along with a sauce that has been made with 2 cups of chopped onions and an equal quantity of tomato puree.  The tomato puree is going to be different today.  I usually take fresh tomatoes and puree them in the food processor.  Today I am going to dip them in hot water for a few minutes, remove the skins and then puree the tomatoes.  The sauce that results from this process is different in flavor and texture, sweeter and smoother, it seems.

The recipe takes a little while to make, about an hour including clean-up, and I’ve realized that an hour is usually a reasonable time to make an Indian dish.  Shorter doesn’t work, and longer is just depressing.  I start feeling as though I am a kitchen slave when the clock starts ticking over the allotted hour.  The trick to feeling less like a slave, I have learnt, is to indeed watch the clock.  For instance I always believe that emptying the dishwasher, a task that I detest, has taken hours out of my precious lifetime.  When I actually measure how long it takes — I find that it’s no more than a 5 or 7 minute task.  Even the dreaded clean-up after cooking, when timed, seems to take no more than 15 minutes.

I discover that the matar paneer is surprisingly easy to make.  It comes out fairly well but I find that I am searching for my mother-in-law’s dish when I taste it.  To make this dish truly my own, I will have to make it a couple more times, and then I will be certain of what my matar paneer tastes like.

Matar Paneer

400g or 2 cups of paneer, chopped
2 cups of frozen green peas, soaked in warm water to defrost and then drained
2 cups of onions, diced
2-3 large cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped finely
A thumb sized piece of ginger, peeled and chopped finely
2 cups of tomato puree, made with fresh whole tomatoes dipped briefly into boiling water and then the skin removed.
1/4 cup of whole fat plain yogurt, called dahi
2 tsps of coriander powder
1 tsp of cumin powder
1 tsp of garam masala
1/2 tsp of red chilli powder, optional
3 tbsps of ghee
Salt to taste

1. Heat the ghee in a pan on medium heat.  Add the onions, ginger and garlic.  Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions turn a medium brown.  Add the tomato puree and cook until the mixture glistens with the ghee that is released.  This will take a while, about 20+ minutes.

2. Add the yogurt and keep stirring until it disappears into the sauce.

3. Add coriander powder, cumin powder, garam masala and chilli powder (if using), along with salt.  Taste, and add a pinch more of the spices if needed, taking care to not over-spice the dish.  Add the chopped paneer and the drained peas.  Add some water, about 1-2 cups.  Bring to boil and allow to cook for a few minutes in order that the paneer imbibes the flavors of the sauce.  Remove from flame and serve hot.

Kattu, toor dal with garlic

(clockwise from left) Garlic, turmeric and toor dal

In the winter, Agastya starts sniffling.  One sniffle turns into the next and we start on a progression of back-to-back colds. Sometimes they start with a fever, sometimes with runny sneezes and sometimes with a bad cough.  They last a week, sometimes two, and a new cold often starts before the old one finishes.  I gaze enviously at children who don’t seem to have colds and wonder what their mothers do.  Agastya’s doctor gives me a stern look when I complain.  “It could be worse,” “at least he doesn’t have an ear infection,” or “he’s so healthy otherwise,” she says.

Each time Agastya gets a new cold I go into an intense cause and effect analysis.  Now Agastya dresses warmly each time he goes out, he washes his hands more often, and we never compromise on sleep and naps.  I have also found a link, albeit somewhat tenuous, between ice-cream consumption and colds.  So no more of that stuff.  The credit really goes to his nanny who hides all the tubs of ice-cream at the back of our freezer and shows him an empty fridge when he remembers to ask for some.  “See, there’s no ice-cream,” says Rose, lifting him up to inspect the empty shelves.  Agastya with his growing powers of reasoning has decided that his mother is responsible for this lack of ice-cream.  One afternoon I hear him sagely remark to Rose that “Mummy ate all the ice-cream,” with a particular drawn-out emphasis on the word “all” in his baby lisp.  I feel suitably guilty.

Still unable to beat the cold, I start asking every mother I know about their view on colds.  Several answers emerge, and interestingly, they all seem to be related to food.  My in-laws suggest honey for coughs, my mother recommends ginger, a cousin mentions yogurt and a friend says to add a fat clove of garlic to Agastya’s food each day.   The last suggestion works a minor miracle.  In the modern day, and in the face of virulent bugs and persistent coughs and sleepless nights, I have tended to get fairly dismissive of home remedies.  But the garlic does appear to have an immediate and positive effect.  I start rethinking all of Agastya’s meals – onions with eggs in the morning with a side of brightly colored berries, a green (broccoli, spinach) or orange (butternut squash, carrot) soup with a large clove of sauteed garlic at lunch, fruit and yogurt for a snack and a lentil preparation at night, with turmeric, garlic and ginger.

The lentil requirement brings to mind the kattu that my mother-in-law makes.  It is a simple, nourishing and surprisingly tasty toor dal dish.  Boil a cup of dry dal in the pressure cooker and keep aside.  Chop several pods of garlic into chunks and saute in a tablespoonful of hot ghee on medium heat until the garlic turns faintly golden.  Sputter a half teaspoonful each of cumin seeds and mustard seeds, add a pinch of asafoetida and a few fresh green curry leaves.  Green chillies can be sliced and added for heat and flavor.  Add the dal and some water to bring to the required consistency.  Add a generous pinch of turmeric, and salt to taste.  Stir and boil for a few minutes.  Serve with rice or rotis or as a soup on its own.  Note that this dal is perfectly tasty with just the sauteed garlic, turmeric and salt, and that the consistency can be thick or thin depending on personal preference.

Paneer Butter Masala

Paneer Butter Masala

I like looking at cook books, but the Indian cooking ones usually scare me.  The list of ingredients will be long and complicated and some recipes will say something to the effect of “two medium tomatoes” and “one large onion” and “a generous pinch of cumin.” I am unsure of what that means, having had a bad experience or two with such directions in the past.   Invariably my proportion of tomatoes to onions will be completely off, and the overly generous pinch of cumin will have made my food too bitter.  “Spices are supposed to be the seasoning not the main ingredient,” my husband will tactfully remark when he comes home to a rather heavily spiced poorly cooked aloo dum, that tastes even stranger because I’ve tried to add, what I believe to be offsets to the extra cumin and tomatoes, including lots of extra butter and yogurt.   At the other extreme are recipes that spell out 350 grams of potatoes and 200 grams of green beans, and I find these impossible too.  It’s far easier to visualize things in cups and tablespoons than upon a weighing scale.

So when I come across a Paneer Makhani recipe that provides directions such as “two cups of tomato puree, one cup of chopped onions and two cups of chopped paneer pieces” in the process of casually flipping through a cookbook, I get very excited because I know that one cup means one beautiful measurable cup.  About 200ml or 237 ml to be more precise.  Clearly the ratio of tomatoes to onions is two to one.   I try out the recipe, it comes out fairly well, and then it gets added to my limited cooking repertoire.  Each time I have to produce a “party dish” or when my paneer-loving younger brother comes to visit, this recipe makes an appearance.  I never have to think.  The key ingredients are easily measurable and the prep and cooking time is under an hour.  I know the taste of the dish will vary based upon the quality of the tomatoes in season or the pungency of the onions.  But by and large, my paneer is always successful, and over time I start changing an ingredient or two here and there, and soon have my own favorite version of Paneer Butter Masala.

Paneer, a pressed Indian home-made cheese, is sold packaged in the refrigerator section of most Indian grocery stores.  What makes this paneer dish really flavorful is the use of a little chopped onions and dried fenugreek leaves, fried separately and added to the dish at the end, along with a tablespoonful of honey (ideas borrowed from the queen bee of Indian vegetarian cooking, Tarla Dalal).   Red chilli powder is optional as I find that my toddler son is far more likely to enjoy the paneer without the chilli.  I also like to finish the gravy and then add the chopped paneer pieces at the end after turning off the flame.  I let the paneer marinate in the gravy, and then reheat thoroughly just before serving.  You can reheat whenever the dish needs to be served, up until the next day.   The paneer will absorb all the flavors of the sauce, and become juicy and succulent.

Paneer Butter Masala

Serves 4

Initial tarka:
2 tbsps clarified butter called ghee
Optional, pieces of whole garam masala: a 1/2” piece of cinnamon stick, 1 clove, 1 green cardamom pod, 1 large bay leaf

Wet masala, to be ground to a paste together:
1 ½ cup of onions, 1 cup cut into large chunks and the rest finely diced.  Keep the diced portion aside.
2 tbsps of broken cashew nuts, or 7-8 whole pieces
2-3 cloves of garlic, peeled
1” piece of ginger, peeled

To be added later:
2 cups of tomato puree made from freshly chopped or canned tomatoes

Dry masalas:
½ tsp of garam masala powder
1 tsp of turmeric
½ tsp of cumin powder
1 tbsp of dried fenugreek leaves called kasuri methi
1 tsp of red chilli powder, optional

For the end:
1 tbsp of honey
1 cup of milk
2 cups or 400g/14 oz of paneer, chopped into small pieces
salt to taste

1.  Heat the ghee in a pan on medium heat and when hot, add the pieces of whole garam masala (optional).  After a few seconds of sizzling, add the ground wet masala paste comprised of onions, garlic, ginger and cashew nuts.  Fry until the paste turns medium brown.

2. Add the tomato puree, along with a ½ cup of water.  Add the turmeric and chilli powder (if using) and cook until the oil floats to the surface of the masala.  This will take a while, about 30 minutes.  Stir occasionally to ensure that the paste is cooking evenly.

3. Meanwhile, fry the ½ cup of chopped onions and kasuri methi in a separate pan with a bit of ghee.   Add this to the cooked paste, along with milk, a ½ cup of water, cumin powder, garam masala powder, honey and salt to taste.  If the sauce seems too thick, add some more milk.  Cook until the mixture comes to a boil.  Add the paneer and continue cooking for a few minutes if serving immediately.  Otherwise, turn off the flame and reheat when ready to serve.

Andhra-style potatoes

Bangala Dumpa Ulli Karam

My husband introduced me to the food from his native state of Andhra Pradesh when we were dating.  The cuisine and its cooking style was a revelation for me.  For instance, a simple sookha aloo-pyaaz or dry potato-onion dish tasted completely different because of the cooking process, the treatment of ingredients and a slightly different spice mix.  In my North Indian home, we would have sputtered whole cumin in hot oil, added the onions, then the boiled potatoes along with some turmeric, a pinch of cumin-coriander powder and some dried mango powder called amchur.  All of this happened in one pan and in sequential steps.  My husband on the other hand cooked his aloo-pyaaz in three almost-parallel parts: onions fried first and made into a wet paste, whole spices roasted separately and ground into a dry spice mix, boiled potatoes stir-fried on their own until golden.  The spices he roasted also included lentils like chana dal and urad dal, that were a completely new and surprise addition to my spice palate.  Finally all three parts were combined into the dish called Bangala Dumpa Ulli Karam or Potatoes in Onion Masala.  The resulting dish, earthy and hearty, had a strong taste of onion paste and freshly ground spices, and could be very spicy from ground dried red chillies.  We now make it without any chillies so that two year-old Agastya, who loves onions and aloo, can eat it too.

Bangala Dumpa Ulli Karam or Potatoes in Onion Masala

Serves 4

2-3 medium-sized potatoes, boiled and cubed into 1/2” chunks.
A little oil

For the wet masala:
2 medium sized onions, diced
1 tbsp of oil

For the dry masala:
1 tbsp chana dal
1 tbsp urad dal
1 tsp whole cumin seeds
1 tsp whole mustard seeds
3-4 dried red chillies (optional)
A spot of ghee

1. Heat the oil in a pan and fry the onions until light brown. Grind to a paste with a little salt.

2. In a little bit of ghee, dry roast the chana dal, urad dal, cumin seeds, mustard seeds and red chillies (in this order) until a fragrant smell is released, taking care to not over-darken or burn the lentils and spices.  In a dry grinder or coffee grinder, coarsely grind the spices.  Add this dry spice mixture to the ground onion paste and mix well.

3. Heat a little oil in a pan.  Add the cubed potatoes and fry for a few minutes until golden.  Stir in the onion masala and salt to taste.  Cook on the flame for a couple of minutes.  Serve hot with basmati rice or rotis.

Stir-fried Okra

Okra, called bhindi

Sometimes when I am in the kitchen, the strongest association that I have with the food, in this case okra, is the memory of a two-and-half year old Agastya hovering around, helping in some way or just getting involved in the vegetable that I am making.  My mother has always claimed that all little children love okra, called bhindi in Hindi, and Agastya has been no exception.  He loves eating stir-fried okra on his own, fingers eagerly cramming the crispy green circles into his mouth.  I do not ever need to follow him around with a plate of food that holds okra to bribe or tempt him to eat a morsel.  This means that when I tell him that I am about to make okra, his little body comes expectantly into the kitchen to inspect what I am doing.  He demands to be placed on the counter while I chop.  Agastya excitedly fingers the okra, examines its shape and texture, and counts the chopped pieces that emerge from my board.  He finds it fascinating that I cut off the “heads” and “tails” of the okra, and that the okra has several names such as bhindi and lady’s finger.  His excitement reminds me of how I always imagine chopped bhindi tails to be the fallen tails of house lizards that reside in practically every home in India.  I make a quick mental note that I must point out house lizards to Agastya when we next visit India.

It is very hard to find good bhindi here in the greater New York metropolitan area.  The Indian stores in Jersey City always carry okra, but they are frequently old, fibrous, hard, and nearly impossible to cook.  Another source is an organic store called Sobsey’s here in Hoboken that occasionally carries very fresh okra imported from Mexico.  And for a short while during the summer, local Jersey-grown okra makes an appearance in the farmers’ markets, and these are just the opposite of the ones in the Indian stores: they are a bright emerald green, glistening, thin, fresh, small and very tender.  While holding a basket of these delectable treasures, I will often have a quick daydream that someone has handed me a paper cone with crisply fried whole tiny green okra, tossed with a generous sprinkling of salt and red chilli powder.   Sometimes I am transported to a sleepy afternoon on the Greek island of Hydra where my husband and I stumbled upon a restaurant that brought us small whole okra cooked in a tomato and onion sauce.  Agastya had proceeded to eat the entire plate, savoring each bite.  We had watched on, relieved that our son had found something to satisfy his tummy.

The best way to enjoy okra’s natural rich earthy flavor is to simply cut fresh okra (washed and thoroughly dried) into 1/4″ inch rounds.  Heat a generous quantity of oil in a non-stick pan on medium heat, say about 3-4 tablespoons of oil for 2 pounds of okra, and throw in the chopped vegetable when the oil becomes hot.  There will be a sizzling sound as the okra hits the hot oil.  Cook uncovered, stirring every few minutes, until the okra browns, becomes soft and starts looking crisp at the edges.  This takes a little while, and it is important to not add any salt until the okra is done.  Covering the okra while cooking and adding salt both cause water to be released from the vegetable.  This hampers the cooking process, leaving the okra raw.  After the okra is cooked, add salt and a generous sprinkling of turmeric.  Cook for just a minute or two and the dish is ready to eat.  Note that okra shrinks down to an alarmingly small quantity after cooking.  For instance, 2 pounds of fresh uncooked okra will only serve 2 adults and one or two small children.


Sometimes my tiny toddler clambers into his dad’s lap at dinner time and proceeds to messily eat everything on the plate, small fingers moving busily from table to mouth, with a look of intense concentration on his face.  This, in spite of having finished his own dinner just an hour ago.  During such moments, I have an overwhelming sense that I must be doing something right.  My cooking has satisfied this small but very particular critic.  From the entire being-a-perfect-parent spectrum, I have decided that all I want to do is give my son two things, a lifelong love of learning and a love of good food.  As I watch him eating, still surprised that he can actually feed himself out of hunger, curiosity or whatever it may be, it seems to me that Agastya seems to especially relish the gobi or cauliflower stir-fry.   Can it really be that we both suddenly agree on what defines a good food?

The gobi dish has been arrived at after a long while of wondering what I can do with a cauliflower to make it edible, let alone make it taste like an authentic Indian sabji. It’s also meant getting over my fear of the cauliflower.  I have realized that just staring at the heads of cauliflower at the market and timidly considering possibilities will not do.  The first step is to bring home a bright white cauliflower with tightly packed florets, unwrap it and then ruthlessly remove all the greens and chop off a large piece of the stem near the head so that most of the florets are left with thinner, tender stems.  Discard all the green and white foliage over the counter before the mess threatens to overwhelm.  Then chop into bite-sized florets.  The satisfying abundance of cauliflower florets can now be put in a colander and washed.  The cooking possibilities then present themselves.  In the past, I have tried boiling the cauliflower in hot water, steaming the florets, even microwaving the entire head before stir frying, but all of these have tended to kill the flavor of the cauliflower.

Simply heating a few tablespoons of oil in a pan and covering and cooking the chopped cauliflower florets on medium heat until soft, stirring occasionally to ensure that the cauliflower doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pan, with a generous pinch of turmeric and salt, can yield a bland, but fairly tasty gobi dish.  The recipe can be be varied to add some grated ginger in the beginning, or long chopped onions cooked until they are brown, or even a green chilli or two, split down the middle, or any combination of the three. A sprinkling of coriander powder, cumin powder and amchur at the end adds another layer of flavor.  A raw medium-sized white or yellow potato with its peel, cut into thin slices and cooked with the cauliflower, adds a delicious rustic flavor to the dish.  Alternatively, a half cupful of green peas can be thrown in midway through the cooking to make gobi matar.