I remember my first meal in India like it was yesterday, and I would like to say that it was a fantastic thali with a flavour combination fit for kings served on a gold banana leaf and over looking a celestial garden with the heady smell of lotus flowers in the air… but sadly it wasn’t… in fact I’ve never eaten at a place like that, but according to the TV commercials, the restaurant at the Taj Hotel in Mumbai is a lot like that…
No, my first meal in India was at the Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi.
Because the first stop on the trip was Kathmandu in Nepal, and New Delhi was the gateway, the first day in India was spent entirely in the airport waiting for a connecting flight. I wouldn’t really see India until two weeks later in Bangalore and after Nepal.
The culinary selection at the New Delhi airport is much like any North American food court, complete with a McDonalds, Domino’s Pizza, Subway, KFC, and a few other Asian chains that I would grow to recognise later in the trip. I was NOT going to let my first meal in Asia be a McChicken, or a Sub Club, or a Hawaiian Pizza with extra olives on a thin crust with a side of twisty bread and wings… but the pickings were thin, especially after clearing immigration on the arrivals level.
But there was this small cafeteria style place, simply called “Food Street” that offered a selection of curries. I wasn’t expecting authentic street food, but maybe I could at least get some cumin and turmeric up in my gob.
I played it safe and got the samosa snack plate (mostly because there were a lot of foods on the menu that I didn’t know what they were yet), and I was treated to a dixie cup of chai, a flimsy paper plate with two medium sized mediocre samosas and a small side of one of my favourite curries… chana masala (spiced chickpeas).
Something that I didn’t know until recently, was that the word “curry” is actually an English word that was adopted in the 17th century to describe the spiced food of Tamil Nadu by the British. It is anglicised from the Tamil word “kari” which means sauce. The British define curry as “…vegetables and/or meat cooked with spices with or without gravy”¹. To me this is also the definition of the word “food”.
From this generalised word, we get the western spice blend “curry powder” which is mostly turmeric with a bit of cumin, coriander, and cayenne pepper added. This is an incredibly inaccurate representation of the vast array of spice blends used in asian cooking. In southern India, their curry powder is called garam masala (hot spice mix) and there are about as many variations of garam masala as there are curries. When I was in Chennai, I had a garam masala hand ground for me that has an anise tinge to it along with a five alarm spice that adds a lot of zing to my recipes.
The fact is, that curry is too general a word to describe the various tastes of India and Asia, and a regional prefix is needed to describe the flavour profiles. An Andhra Pradesh curry, such as biryani, has a completely different spice mix than a Punjab curry, such as chana masala.
Now I’m not sure if it was because I was so excited to be in Asia, but the taste of that chana masala at the airport was awesome, and I will always remember it.
Channa masala is very easy to make, and there are a plethora of recipes for it on the internet. At any Indo-Asian grocery store, you can find pre-mixed spice packs that you just need to add chickpeas to. Most of them are fine, but I find them a little too processed for my tastes, so this is my go to recipe when I’m pining for the Delhi airport announcements about staying with my luggage at all times… once in English, and then again in Hindi.
Chana Masala inspired by the Indira Gandhi International Airport
Ingredients: (Makes 8 servings)
1 tablespoon ghee
2 medium Onions chopped (about 2 cups)
1 cup, chopped tomatoes (about 1 large or 2 medium sized)
4 cup chick peas (450 gram package of dry or 2 large cans)
1 tablespoon ground coriander
2 teaspoon GROUND cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground hot chili pepper
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 cup Water
2 teaspoon cumin SEED
2 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon garam masala
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 cup lemon juice
1 hot chili minced or chopped dry chili
2 teaspoon ginger root minced
1 clove garlic minced
(Note: The above pictures are for a double recipe)
If you are using dried chickpeas, soak them over night in 3 times the amount of water. The next day, drain and rinse.
If you are using canned chickpeas, drain and rinse them.
Heat ghee in dutch oven.
Add chopped onion and garlic and sauté over medium heat until browned (5-10 minutes)
Turn heat to medium-low
Add the coriander, GROUND cumin, cayenne powder and turmeric.
Stir for a few seconds.
Add chopped tomatoes.
Cook the tomatoes until browned, about 5 minutes.
Add chick peas (4 cups or 2 540 ml cans) and 1 cup of water and stir.
Add the cumin SEEDS, paprika, garam masala, salt and lemon juice.
If you are using dried chilis, add them here as well.
Bring back to a simmer, then cook covered for 10 minutes.
If you used dried chickpeas, remove the lid and add enough water to cover the peas, and cook for 10 more minutes. Repeat those steps for an hour or until the peas are tender.
If you used canned chickpeas, you can move onto the next step after the first 10 minutes.
Remove the cover and add the minced ginger, and if you are using fresh minced chilis add them here.
Stir and cook uncovered for 1 minute.
Serve over rice with nann or as a side with samosas.
Traditionally, chana masala is fairly spicy for a western palate (not so much for the Indian taste buds), but the heat from the dish all depends on which ground pepper, paprika, garam masala, and chilis that you use. A hot smoked paprika with a minced habanero, Chennai garam masala and ground Bhut Jolokia will be a wee bit hotter than Safeway brand paprika, minced bell pepper, Halifax thanda masala and ground celery. So you need to know your ingredients.
I also find that this recipe benefits from really flavorful tomatoes. At the end of the growing season here in Canada, I am usually over run with tomatoes, so I end up freezing bags of them, and I used the last of the heirloom cherry tomatoes from last year to make this batch. Made a big difference.
Alternatively, you can use this recipe to make a Caribbean roti. Put a few dollops in the middle of a roti, a tortilla, or any other flat bread, and roll it up like a burrito with a side of kutchella or your favourite chutney. Yum.
I think I’ll sit on my couch now, with a bowl of this, and repeat “May I have your attention please. For security reasons, please do not leave your baggage unattended. Maiṁ hō sakatā hai āpakā dhyāna kr̥payā. Surakṣā kāraṇōṁ kē li’ē, kr̥payā apanē sāmāna pahun̄ca sē bāhara chōṛa nahīṁ hai.” every ten minutes until my cats start screaming.
¹From Wikipedia… so you know it must be right.