North Indian Chana Masala or Sour & Spicy Chick Pea Stew with Basmati Rice

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All Photos © Christine Elise McCarthy 2012

While this blog is not devoted to economic meals nor low calorie (or specifically healthy) ones – the fact is, most of us appreciate a low cost & delicious dinner that satisfies without moving us that much closer to an unsightly bedonkadonk.  A few months ago, a Facebook follower responded to one of my incessant food posts with the remark, “I wish I could afford to eat like you do every day.”  Little did she know – I was in the middle of a self-imposed challenge to go as long as possible without buying any food and force myself to live on all the collected crap in my freezer & pantry.  This wasn’t the first challenge of this sort I had exercised.  The first time I tried it – I went a month and spent only $5.  Of course, by the end of the first week – all fresh produce was gone from my diet and within a week from that – so was all frozen & canned varieties.  I mostly lived on rices & pastas.  It was an all-carb-all-the-time diet that began to alarm my friends.  The day the Facebooker made her remark – concerned friends had anonymously delivered about $500 worth of fresh EVERYTHING to my door.   In fact – both times I did the “pantry cleanse” diet – concerned & WAY TOO generous friends delivered a farmer’s market’s wealth of produce to my door – so I can’t do this diet anymore.  Or – at least – if I do, I need to keep it on the QT.  I felt like I was fleecing my friends for lettuce & broccoli.  So – anyway – my point is, pizza, pasta & rice dishes happen to be what I like – but they are also very cost effective.  Pasta & pizza needn’t be the pound-packers they are reputed to be, either.  If the crust is very thin & you are reasonable with the cheese (and skip meat altogether) – they are really just open faced sandwiches – but SO much more emotionally satisfying.  And – homemade pasta is WAY lighter than the dried variety.  No post-Thanksgiving dinner style bloated gut EVER from homemade pasta.  So – it is just a matter of getting creative & artful with how you present these dishes.  Mix it up.  Got a funny mish mash of ingredients – and no idea what to do with them?  Google them followed by the word recipe.  I then like to click IMAGES & find the prettiest result from the ingredients I listed.  You would be amazed how effective this can be as a source for an exciting new dish without a run to the grocery store.

OK – I’m rambling.  Today’s post is the result of my having one large can of chick peas & a bunch of onions, some leftover tomatoes & leftover jalapenos.

When it comes to Indian food, I prefer the heavily gravied dishes over the drier ones.  This dish is almost all gravy (ymmm) and it is a gravy made up almost entirely of pureed onions.  Sounds funky.  It is not!  It is delicious!  Delicious – of course – if you like the juxtaposition of spicy & sour.  But this dish makes a large quantity (easily enough for 4 – with rice) and the only calories in it really are from the chick peas (which are VERY good for you & CHEAP) and the tiny bit of olive oil.  Cheap, LOW fat, low calorie & yummy as fuck.  And easy to make.  Why not give it a go?

The one drawback with Indian is the initial investment in spices.  All of my versions of Indian dishes will call for 2-3 times as much of each spice as most other versions you will see.  I like the dishes heavily seasoned.  My suggestion for the spices is that you find a local exotic spice store – and not a fancy Williams-Sonoma type one but a local family-owned one – and go in there with a list.  The fact is – these stores tend to sell every day spices at deep discounts, too.  My supermarket charges like $8 for that traditional size container of an average spice – like say – cumin.  My Indian spice store sells a giant container – ten times as much – for like $5. is also a good source – believe it or not.  So – if you are in an area that lacks ethnic opportunities – don’t forget the interweb!  Everything you want can be found there.

The basic spices that most Indian dishes will call for are:

Garam Masala – which you can make (garam masala recipe) or buy prepared

Cumin – both seeds & ground

Coriander – both seeds & ground


Green Cardamom pods


Fennel seeds

Bay leaves

Tamarind paste

Mango Powder (Amchoor)

Asafoetida (read this Wiki thing Asafoetida) – which STINKS (good Lord!) in the container but cooks up nicely.  Trust.  Despite its alternative name “devil’s dung.”

Mustard seeds of all colors


Curry powder

and – as an aside –  fresh ginger, garlic & onions are used in nearly everything — unless you are unfortunate enough to have stumbled upon a Hare Krishna Indian recipe.  They think garlic leads to lewdness.  But I’ve covered this in the past.  Just know – if you are making an Indian dish & do not see onions or garlic in the ingredients – you might want to look for a version of the recipe that has them.

SPECIAL NOTE – I have yet to succeed in creating a mint or cilantro chutney OR a decent yogurt raita myself.  My spice store is attached to a restaurant that sells these items in any quantity you wish.   It is easier & cheaper to do it this way for me – so that is what is pictured here.  I will persevere, though, and try to work out a homemade version – eventually.




This dish is very easy to prepare.  Don’t be thrown by the amount of onion.  A food processor is kinda critical with this one, though, in order to get the onions pureed gravy-style.


North Indian Chana Masala or Sour & Spicy Chick Pea Stew


1 29 oz can chick peas (garbanzo beans)

1 cup diced tomatoes

2 large red onions – chopped roughly (some reserved & chopped for garnish)

fresh cilantro (fresh coriander) – chopped for garnish

2 inch piece of fresh ginger – peeled & chopped

8 garlic cloves

3 jalapenos (some reserved & sliced thin for garnish)

2 TBS olive oil

1 TBS turmeric

1/4 tsp cinnamon

10 green cardamom pods – gently crushed under the flat side of a knife (to release their flavor)

3 bay leaves

6 TBS yogurt (or prepared raita – if you have it)

3 TBS garam masala

pinch of asefoetida (not critical – so don’t sweat it if you don’t have it)

2 TBS ground cumin

2 TBS ground coriander

1 tsp sugar (raw – preferably)

1 TBS tamarind paste

juice of 1/2 lemon

1/4 tsp whole black peppercorns

salt to taste

1 1/2 cup water


Puree: the red onion, ginger, garlic, jalapenos & 1/2 cup water – into a paste in the food processor.

Heat: the oil in a large, heavy saute pan over medium heat.  Saute the cinnamon, bay leaves & cardamom pods for a minute then add the onion puree & tomatoes.  Saute until the liquid begins to evaporate & the onions start changing color  to – a nice pale brown.


Stir in the tamarind paste.  One blended add: salt, sugar, garam masala, coriander, cumin, turmeric & lemon juice.  Stir this until blended then add the yogurt & stir in in until blended.  The puree should now how a rich chocolate color.

Add the chick peas & the liquid from the can along with another cup of water.  Simmer this on low for an hour or more.  Be sure it doesn’t dry out.  Add water if the rich gravy starts looking sparse.  It should be a pretty wet stew – the gravy being the primary element here – rather than the chick peas.

Serve on individual plates over basmati rice & garnish with cilantro, red onion & sliced jalapeno.

Serve with mint chutney & a yogurt raita on the side – if you can.  No worries if you cannot.



3 cups basmati rice – rinsed several times in a colander

1 TBS olive oil

1 tsp cumin seeds

1 tsp salt

20 green cardamom pods (if you can get them)


Heat the olive oil in a pan.  Once hot – add the cumin seeds & the cardamom pods – again being wary of their popping & spitting.  I used 20 cardamom pods because mine were a bit old.  You might want to use fewer if yours are fresh & really pungent.  After a minute – add the rice & stir until it is all covered in oil & the spices are well blended.  Add 3 3/4 cups of water (or whatever ratio of rice to water your package suggests) & bring to a boil.  Use less water for firmer rice.  Once boiling – reduce heat to low & simmer, covered, for however long the rice package instructs you.  Remove from heat.  Fluff with a fork.


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