My first encounters with chana masala were from a place off the highway in Surrey called Kwality Sweets, a tiny little shop that sold samosas by the paper bag, three for a dollar, and you could pay any way you liked unless Mrs. Sekhon was working, and then you could only pay cash. I think Kwality Sweets provided me my first taste of chick peas.
Later, when I began spending weekly evenings in Burnaby with my grandmother, we’d go to the Himalaya in Vancouver at Main & 49th with my aunt and uncle, and the chana masala was heaped onto a plate with the samosas, which I think you got two of. My grandmother liked that place, and the waiter, George, who had been raised in India.
Ever since George, I cannot think of men like Rudyard Kipling without imagining anyone’s old dad or grandfather, grey slacks belted high on the waist, and the accent. If you closed your eyes when George spoke, you’d have thought he was turbaned and bearded, not blue-eyed and balding. His syllables, mottled and pleasant, undulating like a car rolling downhill on octagon tires, reminded me of the way that the chatty men spoke, those men always dressed in colourful turbans and white dhotis or Umbro tracksuits and dress shoes, seated on Kwality Sweets’ plastic deck chairs, nice men who would always ask if this was my first samosa, and had I had the jalebis? Yes, of course, I’d answer – they’re my favourite. George never asked me what I liked. It didn’t matter, and I was okay with that – I was a teenage girl, and he was more interesting than me.
George did not seem to be a fan of most of his customers, but Cuddles found him curious, and soon, like John and Chris of the Penny Farthing, he knew her order and they would chat. He would bring her the fiery pickled carrots and the minty green chutney, and he would almost, almost smile. Indian food was a kind rebellion, she told me once, a thing my grandfather would never have eaten. He liked curry, she said – he just didn’t know it. She would sneak hints of the yellow powder into his food. A trace of it in regular old potato salad makes all the difference in the world.
After my grandmother, my aunt and uncle remained familiar to George. I did not, though we would still stop in for a samosa, a plate of chicken tikka, and a little square box of jalebis and gulab jamun, and maybe a slice or two of barfi, which I think must be Indian shortbread. The last time I was there, George was too, although there was no small talk. He served Nick and I quickly, if disinterestedly, and I left a very large tip.
Indian food in the city is not like it was in the suburbs, where little sweet shops with the same blue and white and red signs that were all or almost all in Punjabi are pretty much everywhere now. The Himalaya is a rarity out here, where places like Vij’s, Maurya, and Chutney Villa turn out delightful delicacies that, while fantastic, are not what you’d qualify as comfort food. And they cost too much. Mrs. Sekhon would not charge you eight dollars for a small plate of chana masala. George would give it to you for free.
And so, periodically, when it seems like time again for a chick pea, I like to whip up an easy batch of spicy goodness, served with rice, and sweet potatoes and spinach simmered in coconut milk and nutmeg and lime, and a lazy sort of raita. It’s as satisfying a feast as I remember, even if it is my own spin on things, because it would feel like infidelity to produce the same meal exactly. Like ratting out your mother’s rumball recipe, it’s a thing you don’t do without at least a dozen years’ distance. So, stay tuned. As my moral fibre unravels, you can expect a perfect reproduction and detailed instruction in about a decade. (Not quite as soon for the rumballs. My mom insists that she will endure.)
Chana masala is a very easy thing to make. My version is utterly inauthentic, but it’s soothing and wonderful, and tastes enough like the stuff to pass, even if you cannot find your garam masala, which I couldn’t. So this recipe doesn’t call for it. Which makes it all the easier to make at home. I wonder if that means it isn’t chana masala? Maybe not. But I wouldn’t bother trying to come up with a new name.
Weeknight Chana Masala
- 1 tbsp. butter
- 1 tsp. coriander seeds (if you don’t have coriander seeds, ground coriander is fine, although if you’re using ground, then add it later, with the other dry spices)
- 1 onion, chopped
- 3 cloves minced garlic
- 2 tsp. finely minced fresh ginger
- 1 14 oz. can (about 1 1/2 cups fresh) diced tomatoes
- 1 tbsp. chili powder
- 2 tsp. ground cumin
- 1/2 tsp. cayenne pepper (I use a full teaspoon, but Nick told me that I should tell you to use less, because you might not expect it to be as hot as it is, which is how we/I like it … I think he thinks you’re a wimp)
- 1/4 tsp. cinnamon
- 1 tsp. ground black pepper
- 1 19 oz. can (2 cups) chick peas
- 1 lime, just the juice
- Salt, to taste
- About 1/4 cup of cilantro, a third of which is reserved for sprinkling on top
In a pan on the stove, melt the butter. Add the coriander seeds. Give them about a minute, and then add your onions, garlic, and ginger. The smell will be pungent and fantastic. Once the onions have cooked until translucent, add in your tomatoes, juice and all. At this point, you’ll want to add in your dry spices, all of them. And the smell gets a bit stronger, and you’ll feel slightly more alive.
Add in your chick peas, and squish the lime juice over top. Reduce the whole thing until the juices all but disappear. You want it to be thick and rich, not runny. I didn’t add any salt, but here’s the point where you want to taste and adjust your seasonings.
Just before you serve this, toss in most of the cilantro. Reserve the rest for topping. Eat with naan bread, and something to sop up the spice (if you used a full teaspoon of cayenne pepper). I also served it with rice, and mashed sweet potatoes and spinach (simmer two medium sweet potatoes in a can of coconut milk, the zest of one lime, a bit of garlic and ginger, and a half teaspoon of nutmeg until the liquid has pretty much disappeared and the potatoes are tender, add a handful of spinach, and then mash).
With a crisp sauvignon blanc or dry rosé, this is excellent. Nick forgot what I asked him to grab on the way home, so we had a fresh little pinot gris, and it was also tasty. For dessert, I’ll cut into a fresh, perfect yellow melon I found at the store on the way home, because I do not have jalebi, or gulab jamun, or even barfi, and I don’t know how to make them. I imagine in India, and even in Surrey, that melon is perfectly acceptable when jalebis are unavailable. I may drive out there this weekend, just for a small square box, all my own.