30-minute Chana Masala and some blabber

Ever since I heard that a renowned Indian food personality was going to be answering home-cook's and reader's questions on preparing Indian food at home in the New York Time's dining blog, I was looking forward to the Q&A. Afterall, she is an author of various Indian cookbooks and she also hosts an Indian cooking class so I was interested to hear what advice she would give to the home-cooks worldwide.

Unfortunately though I was disappointed. Why? Well, I felt her views were a lot rigid for my taste. For example, she says that store bought spice blends like garam masala (or even cumin powder) have 100% loss of flavor compared to roasting and grinding spices at home and hence one should never buy store-bought blends but instead make our own every 3-4 months. On a question about improvising Indian spices in various dishes, she answers that the spices can not and should not be improvised in Indian dishes; there is a logic to which spice should go in which dish and the logic should be followed.

Now, on face value, I agree with everything she said. Yes, we know that home-made spice blends made from toasting and griding whole spices is much better than store bought ones; yes, there is a logic in which spices go in which Indian dishes, and yes, home-made paneer (like home-made cheese) can not compare with store-bought one.

But, this is where I disagree: I disagree that one should never buy store-bought garam masala; I disagree that it lacks 100% in flavor. Yes, there is logic in spice combinations, but I disagree that you need to always follow the logic rigidly and not improvise or adapt spices to what suits you.

Indian cooking to me is not about slogging in the kitchen for hours at end following rigid rules. It is instead about incorporating all these fragrant spices, each with unique colors and flavors in your cooking, in your own way, in what suits you and your family the best. It is about making these spices your own! I don't think Indian cooking should be considered as a collection of rigid rules of spice combinations and recipes that should be followed by heart; but instead, our food, like us is unique to each and every one of us and thats where lies the beauty of it!

If you have time then you should definitely make home-made garam masala and roast and grind whole cumin for cumin powder and make home-made paneer everytime you crave saag paneer, but here is the thing, life happens.. Most of the home cooks today are juggling various roles: some of us are professional individuals, some of us are busy parents of toddlers and teens, some of us have many other responsibilities and some of us have all of the above. 

It is not always possible to make home-made spice blends every 3-4 months and it is not always possible to make home-made paneer everytime you want to cook paneer. I don't think that should ever be a deterrent for anyone wanting to cook more Indian food. Indian food for me. In this world of obesity, fast-food and takeouts we got to encourage more people to cook at home and share a healthy home-made meal on dinner table, if the cost is that they use short cuts like canned and store-bought, I don't think there is any reason to discourage that.

Yes, we all agree what the best is -- but don't let not reaching the best, deter you from attempting something good, may not be the best but its still good! Don't let best be the enemy of good... what do you think about this topic??

Okay, now, I stop my blabber right here and go straight to the recipe. Today's recipe makes the same point in case. On many days when I come home dead-tired this chana masala has saved the day. It uses all the short-cuts of all sorts but it is sure to bring a very tasty dish to your table in less than 30-minutes!

1Tbsp vegetable or canola oil
1 onion - chopped
2 small green chilis - chopped (more or less to adjust the heat)
3 medium cloves of garlic - smashed
1/2in piece of ginger - chopped
2 tomatoes - chopped
1 can chickpeas/garbanzo beans
1C water
1/4tsp mustard seeds
1/4tsp cumin powder
1/4tsp garam masala
1/2tsp coriander powder
1tsp tamarind paste
chopped cilantro for garnish

  1. Heat oil in a large pot. When hot, add mustard seeds and wait for them to pop.
  2. Add chopped chilis and onions. Sauté on medium-high heat until onions start to brown.
  3. Add ginger & garlic and sauté for a couple of minutes until aromatic.
  4. Add rest of the spices (cumin, coriander powder and garam masala) and sauté for a minute or two.
  5. Add chopped tomatoes and cook until oil starts to separate from the tomatoes. (Add a bit of water if the tomatoes start to stick to the pan).
  6. Drain and rinse the chickpeas and add them to the pan. Add 1C water and cook covered for 10-15mins or so.
  7. Then using a potato masher mash the chickpeas in the pot itself to break a few of them so that the end dish has a more thick consistency.
  8. Remove from heat. Add tamarind paste and taste. Adjust the seasonings per taste.
  9. Add chopped cilantro and serve with some chapati or naan.
Serve with some hot chapati or naan or some pita breads and a yogurt raita (simplest one would be some yogurt, chopped mint or cilantro, salt, vinegar and a bit of black pepper).


Anonymous said…
totally with u..I for one love shortcuts, some mis matches and all that..that adds fun in the kitchen..
Yasmeen said…
Yum chana Masala.I have to say most of my spice mixes are store bought and I find them equally flavorful.And am always playing around with the flavors as long as the end result is delicious :D
Cool Lassi(e) said…
I totally agree with you..cooking is all about experimenting..a science..I don't like sticking to the rules..at least not all the time.And yes, i love store bought because it is a life saver. I would do things from scratch if i could, but not all the time.
Great Chana Masala. Perfect for roti and rice!
Kanchan said…
Me being into this busy IT industry or seen my working mom buying few of the main masalas from stores, I hardly have this attraction for homemade masalas !

So totally agree with you.

Liked you 30 min dish, nice way to prepare the famous chana masala.
Hayley said…
100% with you PJ...don't have time(although I'm home maker)to grind spices every month..if you don't buy pickles or papads from the store, what will happend to those poor womens who makes it..your Chana masala looks yummy and tasty..
PJ said…
MunchCrunchandSuch, precisely my thoughts :)

Yasmeen, good, I was starting to wonder if I am the only lazy one here who uses all the short-cuts all the time!

Lassi, same here.. some masalas (like marathi goda masala) i would make from scratch but experimentation and improvising is essential for me to even keep the fun going in kitchen.

Kanchan, so true.. in this busy world, we got to encourage more people to cook at home -- i say let them use shortcuts if that means more homemade meals.
Namitha said…
What I would have done without the store bought spice mixes :-) It's impossible for me to make everything from scratch with two kids and a house to take care of :-)Great chana masala !
Bombay Foodie said…
I bristled at that 100% flavor loss comment too.

My mom makes me a fresh batch of garam masala every month but I would be lost without pao bhaji masala and rasam powder.
Preeti Kashyap said…
Why are mothers there for? ...to make fresh roasted and ground masalas! I agree that fresh ones are better than store ones. But store ones are not bad either! they are convenient, healthier that fast food and so much convenient for working women like us. If i had to make paneer fresh every time I had to make a paneer dish, i would be having a paneer dish every 6 months.
Preeti Kashyap said…
Lovely chana masala :)
Pari Vasisht said…
Hi. I disagree with this lady who ever she is. I never stick to one fixed set of masalas and can add anything that comes into my hand.Cooking is all about experimenting with spices. I am 100% sure that hommade spices are better but I am all in for readymade, though once in a while I do make them at home but that's a rarity. I prefer organic spices, are saviors.
That's an easy to fix chana masala surely.
indosungod said…
With you totally. She is perpetuating the myth that Indian cooking is stressful, hard and oh so inflexible.

I bring mom made sambhar powder every time I visit India but that sits in my freezer and is used over a period of a year or more. I am not cooking Indian food the proper way! Sad.

As for the channa masala it looks absolutely Indian and none lacking for using canned beans ;)
tinyskillet said…
I really enjoyed this post and I do agree with you. To some people (who don't really care about food) good is just fine. We all use and appreciate shortcuts and our meals turn out good, even better than most. I think we all have a favorite spice or curry blend that is store bought. I have a favorite store bought curry that I use for dishes that I want a subtle curry taste to it. Other dishes that I want more pronounced I do toast and grind my spices. Again, maybe it's only us that can tell the difference, other might not. It's all in the eye of the..."taster" Lol! Okay I'll stop my blabber and enjoy this recipe! Thanks
Panchpakwan said…
I too dont make maslas at home..I feel store bought are really good and handy too.

Anyway, your chana malsala is call me..:) So tasty...
Panchpakwan said…
I too dont make maslas at home..I feel store bought are really good and handy too.

Anyway, your chana malsala is call me..:) So tasty...
Priya Suresh said…
Totally agree with u PJ..btw channa masala makes me drool..
Rachana said…
I am so with you PJ... there are some masalas's which I would make from scratch but not all... and Cooking is all about experimenting...

Delicious chana masala.
PranisKitchen said…
nice blabber..the home made one taste good.than store bought one..but store bought one is also taste good.not bad at all..somepeople always love to use store bought one comment like this.."store bought one is so bad i always prepare all at powders at home" thats common
the channa masala looks so delicious color ful too
arthi said…
I will make some masalas at home and buy some..and your channa masala looks so nice :)
Unknown said…
Experiments-kitchen-cooking-fab-recipe all are linked together..infact my homemade garam masala never taste the same.."VARIETY IS SPICE OF LIFE"
Unknown said…
gR8 CHANA MASALA...perfect for rice/roti
Anu said…
wow yummy channa masala...
Mints! said…
About the Q&A - you are so right on dot. I felt the same way when I read it.

I tend to use store bought masalas and I am happy with it. If I want to make pav-bhaji and make masala for that probably I will never make it.

I always hear this from non Indians that indian food is very time consuming and need everything fresh and so many spices. I always tell them, you can make decent Indian food with whatever you have in hand.

And the chana masala looks great as usual.
Sonia said…
Ahem! I'm neutral here. Even I used to buy store-bought garam masala. Just 2 months back, I dared to prepare my garam masala at home (first time ever!)and it's saved my 7-8 months. The color and fragrance of home-made spices is definitely unbeatable. However, I'm not completely disagree with store-bought masala. I still use some spice powders too and have some good stock in my fridge.

Ahh! your chana masala looks so inviting. Even I used to prepare this way during my student life. I always make sure that I have a can of chick-peas and rajma.

btw, I use my Roti-maker. It saves my loads of time and energy. Again, nothing can beat your handmade roti but it's matter of time! :)
PJ said…
Jagruti, good point! its also all about shared labor and services. we are far from an age where everything needs to be done yourself.

Namitha, so true! I don't know what I would do either unless an Indian store was driving closeby.

Simran, precisely.. some flavor will be lost but i dont think its 100%.. I think we honestly should encourage people to cook more at home - even if that means using more shortcuts.

Preeti, exactly.. store ones are good enough and make cooking at home so much easier that its way worth than fast food option.

Pari, i so much agree. Cooking is all about experimenting and playing with flavors, isn't it!
Sushma Mallya said…
Lovely write up, i too agree with you PJ, Now a days its really not possible to do everything from scratch with so much work, Cooking should always be fun, easy to do and delicious to have it...And chana masala looks too good, love your clicks always ...
PJ said…
Indo, glad you agree :) Yes, that was my issue too.. Indian cooking need not be stressful where you are cooking for hours at end.. it can actually be very simple and fast if you want.. but sadly thats the take-away people take.

Lyndsey, true, flavor is surely in the mouths of beholders, or so to say :)

Panchpakwan, thanks! Store bought ones are good enough substitute for busy times, i feel. Glad you liked the chana masala too :)

Priya, thanks! So glad you liked the chana masala.

Rachana, so true, it is all about experimenting and enjoying!
Yes PJ I agree with you dear.. Home made are possible atleast if we are in India.. here its impossible doing this every 3 to 4 months.. Channa masala quick version is super...
SathyaSridhar said…
PJ, nowadays homemade one is reducing cos of hurry in all the time we r looking for easy n quick versions to save the time..chana curry looks delicious n very easy too.
sayantani said…
I absolutely support you that in this time of busy life one cannot make everything at home. there are certain spices that I like to prepare as in India we dont get spice powders that are 100% pure and of good quality (like in cumin powder they always mix some other spices or even dried soil)so whenever am in home town I buy them in big quantity and get them powdered at a local mill...but I do this with a lot of cribbing, if i would have got better quality spices i would have bought them with closed eyes.
as for the rules of cooking i ndont believe in them and that's why I always find cooking so relaxing. i can experiment and come up with new dishes that way.
last but not the least the chana looks perfect and very tasty.
Totally agree with you, but those store bought is not bad at all since we're unable to prepare from scratch due to other commitments but cooking is about experimenting or mix and match to suit your taste. Definitely you could whip up a decent meal if proper spices is being used regardless of store bought or home made products. Chana looks so delicious and beautiful click too...
Hari Chandana P said…
Mouth watering click.. looks soo tempting.. tryly delicious.. :)
chakhlere said…
Me too agree with you!! If I make my own garam masala and do everything from scratch i will spend my whole time in Kitchen...rather than enjoying what I cook with my family.
PJ said…
PranisKitchen, so true. i am with you here for sure.

Arthi, same here. we hardly have time or the energy anymore to make everything from scratch. isn't that the point of leveraged economies afterall :)

A2Z vegetarian cuisine, thanks! very true.. variety is indeed the spice of life.

Anu, thanks! I am so glad you liked this chanan masala.

Mints, exactly.. there is this perception that indian food needs slogging in the kitchen forever, a whole bunch of ingredients and a lot of patience, in-fact as you so rightly say its not like that at-all. we got to change the perception and not encourage more of this do-everything-from-scratch myth.

Sonia, I so agree here.. home-made masalas are sure quite unique but store-bought ones aren't bad either! Roti maker sounds like a wonderful idea... I have been thinking about it for a long time, guess I should just bite the bullet and buy one :D
PJ said…
Sushma, so true.. cooking should always remain fun :)

Pavithra, very true.. if you have some help around the house, possibly you can think of making home-made regularly.. but in this DIY model we live in, the more we can offload without sacrificing the quality of life the better, i say :)

Sathya, thanks! yes, i think it all comes down to time finally.

Sayantani, oh wow, i never knew of this fact about store-bought spices in India. I grew up in a small town where we would buy spices from an 'uncle' and so i suppose they were always fresh and high-quality. Yes, it would surely help to have access to good quality pre-made spices.

Treat and Trick, so agree. With a good quality store-bought ones, its certainly possible to whip up a good meal in no time!

Hari, thanks! I am so glad you liked the click and the dish.

Chakhlere, exactly.. isn't it all about eating healthy, delicious, home-made food with your friends and family and actually enjoying it!
Unknown said…
Dear PJ loved ur read....I too agree with u..actually we have come much forward from the traditional cooking modes where the orinality of spices are the true aroma of the food...now our life has become so fast and we are involved in so many things that time has also been distributed and fixed for each work...spending a little time extra for a work might hamper the other....so when we r getting all the ready made spices,which are quite good to me then why to take the pressure of making homemade spices in every 3-4 months...yes some recipes really need some special spices which can only be made at home but as we all know cooking is an art and changing our taste buds are a necessary in intervals so once in a while thats ok..but not every time....
Super presentation, this is just brilliant yaar.
Anushree said…
Hehe...This is a favourite amongst all students here. We end up making chana masala (frm garbanzo can) atleast once in a week..and mostly we end up using readymade tomatoo puree since we dont have patience to cut the tomatoes :P
Then there is rajma made from pinto beans too :D
Anushree said…
One more thing i learnt here is...if we fry tortilla in oil...It almost looks and tastes like a bhatura!!
Chana Masala and these Bhaturas make an awesome menu for parties! :D
Joanne said…
Even though I don't do MUCH Indian cooking (I am trying to get more into it!) I have to say that I totally agree with you. I think if you buy a good quality spice blend, then it can be just as good as if you ground it yourself! To say that buying spice blends is WRONG just tells people not to even bother because most people would never even dream of grinding their own. Why be so discouraging? Harumph.

At least I had your beautiful dish to cheer me up!
PJ said…
Kamalika, i so agree. our lives have really become to intertwined in a lot of things that the more easier you make the things, more people will actually attempt it.

Jay, thanks! I am so glad you liked it :)

Anushree, this was my student fix too.. the idea of bhatura with tortialla sounds so awesome! i'll have to try that soon. thanks :)

Joanne, exactly.. we need to make things easier for people so they will attempt it more often, right!
i have not once made my own masalas...even though i completely agree with the quality differences..the store bought ones are a saving grace and dont finf nything wrong with it..i thoroughly agree with ur views..
have never tried chana masala...but sure looks tempting enough..
Preeti Kashyap said…
Hi PJ. Do participate in my ongoing event. Will be great to indulge in your recipes again :)
Cham said…
If i am a frequent user of certain masala or powder I make at home, like rasam, etc...Nothing beats homemade! But channa masala probably once in a year, I buy at the store! But I was never been so fond of any brand! But recently I got hooked in South Indian one which has a perfect homemade test!
sangeeta said…
I am one packet masala hater and love everything homemade......but yes , i hate rigid rules the most..

Indian cooking is not about sticking to authentic recipes .....i agree absolutely...if you don't experiment it is dead....after all Indians have incorporated chilies , brinjal n potatoes so well that they are the staples here ( and have been europian imports in the history )..

i was thinking why i don't get your feed in my reader ...got it now.
I just found your blog and love it already. I'm totally with you on traditionalists that hold rigid standards of "authenticity" which often vary by region in the country in question anyway. Being a big fan of improvisation and adaptation, I realize that most of my recipes wouldn't pass muster if put up to such rigid standards, but that's part of what makes them fresh and interesting.