To my mind there’s always been something both specious and completely irresistible about foods named after places.
The rational, contrary side of me rejects the idea that there could ever only be one true way to cook a dish just because a certain city is famous for it. Cooks everywhere are just too inventive and curious for this notion to really hold much water.
But, try as I might to poke holes through the idea, I do love the notion of a dish that is made in some quintessentially similar way because of where it’s from.
Though I grew up in the south of India, we still ate a lot of what we considered North Indian food. How authentic much of this was is a debate for another day. But, still: puris, laccha parathas, various dishes that include paneer—that wonderful fresh cow’s milk cheese that is the very stuff of dreams—all were treated as welcome guests at our family table. Some of them we ate at home, but others were almost always eaten when we were out.
Chole bhature, the dish of stewed chickpeas that comes with a inflated ball of fried dough was to my teenage mind the most Punjabi thing I’d ever eaten, and definitely something reserved for special meals outside the house. The chickpeas, fiery, tangy, earthy; the bhatura a ludicrous and delicious balloon with a touch of sourness from the yoghurt in the dough.
As I got older and we all became more accustomed to the increasingly frequent openings of small Punjabi restaurants in Bangalore, more and more south Indian cooks began to experiment with making Punjabi dishes at home. I still remember overhearing my mother’s phone calls with friends, discussing a recipe for an authentic chole recipe that she had persuaded a Punjabi friend to part with. Invariably, the secret ingredient in many of these recipes was the addition of a Lipton tea bag, which gives the dish a rich, tannic base, and a dark, earthy colour.
Though I’m still fond of my mother’s recipe, my own version of this Amritsari dish is slightly less strongly seasoned, and less dark. And as a final flourish, I like to finish it with a seasoning of thinly sliced ginger and garlic sautéed in hot ghee with a handful of slit green chillies. The ginger and garlic add an aromatic punch to the finished dish, and the green chillies—large and conspicuous enough that the spice-averse can easily avoid them—add a lovely green heat that complements the rich, tangy earthiness of the dish.
If you feel ambitious enough, I heartily recommend eating this wonderful chickpea stew with some freshly fried bhature, though even puris would work wonderfully here. But if you don’t feel up to all that frying, don’t fret, it’s just as delicious with a pot of white rice.
Serves 4-5 as a main course with bhature, puris, or rice
For cooking chickpeas:
2 cups dried chickpeas
1 2-inch cinnamon stick, left whole
2 pods black cardamom
4 teaspoons black tea leaves tied securely into a muslin sachet
To make the sauce:
4 tbsp ghee
1 small onion, thinly sliced
1 1/2-inch piece ginger, peeled and minced
4 large garlic cloves, peeled and minced
2 tsp coriander powder
2 tsp cumin powder
1 tbsp amchur (mango powder)
1 tsp fennel powder
1 tsp red chile flakes (or to taste)
1 28-oz can crushed tomatoes
3 green chillies, slit lengthwise along one side
1 inch fresh ginger, peeled and thinly julienned
2 large cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced lengthwise
Finely chopped cilantro
Freshly squeezed lime juice
Soak the chickpeas in a large, heavy-bottomed non-reactive pan with enough cool water to cover by two inches. Add a large pinch of sea salt to the water, mix to dissolve and leave to soak overnight.
The next day, add the cinnamon, black cardamom, and the sachet of tea leaves to the pan and cook the chickpeas over a low flame until tender enough that they an be easily smashed between your fingers. Check every so often to make sure that there is still plenty of water covering the chickpeas. Add more water as needed. Once the chickpeas are cooked they can be set aside until ready to use.
To make the sauce for the chickpeas, heat the ghee in another large, heavy-bottomed pan over medium-high heat till it begins to shimmer and move easily around the bottom of the pan.
Add the onions along with a pinch of salt. Stir well until the onions have turned limp and are just beginning to colour.
Add the minced ginger and garlic and stir well to make sure that they don’t burn. Cook for just a minute or two, until they no longer smell raw.
Add the powdered spices to the pan, turn the heat down to medium, and stir well to combine with the onions, ginger, and garlic. If the spices look like they might be in danger of burning add up to a couple of tablespoons of water and stir well, scraping up any bits of spice or onion that may be stuck to the bottom of the pan. Cook until you see the oil begin to separate from the onion, garlic, and ginger.
Add the crushed tomatoes to the pan. Rinse out the can with a cup of cool water and add that to the pan as well.
Stir the tomatoes well to distribute the spices and aromatics throughout. Add a teaspoon of salt and turn the heat back up to medium high.
Cook the mixture for twenty minutes or so, stirring often, to make sure that the sauce isn’t sticking to the bottom of the pan, until you begin to see the oil separate from the sauce around the edges of the pan.
Add the chickpeas to the pan, along with their cooking water, the black cardamom, cinnamon, and the sachet of tea.
Stir well, lower the heat so that the liquid is just perking, and cover the pan with a tight-fitting lid.
Cook for 30--40 minutes, stirring occasionally to make sure that the sauce isn’t sticking, until the sauce has thickened and the flavor of the spices has fully impregnated the chickpeas. Check for salt and adjust as needed. Remove the sachet of tea leaves and discard.
In a small skillet, heat 1 tbsp of ghee over medium-high heat. When it begins to shimmer, add the slivered green chillies to the pan along with the julienned ginger. Stir quickly, to make sure that neither the ginger nor the chillies burn. When the ginger smells toasty and has turned golden brown and the chillies have blistered from the heat of the pan, tip the contents of the pan over the prepared chickpeas.
Sprinkle with chopped fresh cilantro, a squeeze of lime, and serve hot with freshly fried bhature, puris, or white rice.