India is Calling!: Black-Eyed Pea Masala

It’s starting to draw closer and closer. The journey of a lifetime and an experience which I will never forget. I’m heading to India next week, and even though this would be my ninth time going there, I have never been so excited in my life. Truth be told, I’m not even quite sure what’s drawing me there this time, but I feel like it’s because I’m going to travel there for the first time with an open mind.

In the past, vacationing to India always felt like such a chore. There were always several houses to be visited, and the flow of aunties dying to pinch your cheeks was simply unbearable. On top of all of that, every time I would go there, I would always end up getting sick with some sort of gastrointestinal ailment (fingers crossed that I emerge from this trip disease free this time), and hence I would be stuck in a nauseated mood for days. Yes we did sight see, but unfortunately I couldn’t get past the third-world nature of the place. The poverty on the streets and the littered cityscape prevented me from taking in the breathtaking beauty of India’s sprawling metropolises and rich history found in every corner.

This time around, I am throwing all of my preconceived notions in the trash, and I am going to make the most of my eleven days in the Indian melting pot of Mumbai. Indeed there will be visits with family, which I am still excited about because it provides a great opportunity to go recipe collecting, but the rest of the time will be spent traversing through the bountiful plethora of neighborhoods which make up Mumbai. From regal Churchgate to hip and swanky Lower Parel, the variety of restaurants and street stalls selling incredibly fresh cuisine is something which is perhaps unmatched anywhere else in the world.

To celebrate my anticipation I made a hearty pot of black-eyed pea masala last night. Masala itself is an ambiguous word which simply refers to a mix of spices and aromatic vegetables that are cooked together to form the base of a sauce. Generally, most masalas contain characteristic hints of cumin, coriander, turmeric, ginger, and garlic, but whatever else you throw in is entirely dependent on the dish, and due to personal preferences, masalas can differ vastly from home to home. What I chose to do last night, was to use the black-eyed pea, better known here as a Southern favorite boiled with collard greens and ham hocks. In India though, we stew up our black-eyed peas in an inviting blend of spices. I started by toasting cumin and coriander seeds and then grinding them into a powder. I know that you can easily buy readily ground cumin and coriander, but toasting your own whole spices makes a world of a difference. Sweated together with onions, ginger, garlic, and couple of other exotic goodies (black cardamom, anyone?), the venture resulted in a pot of black-eyed peas together with a rich brown sauce. Now apparently, people tend to shy away from Indian food due to its mysterious brown color, but seriously, what’s wrong with brown? When I see brown on a plate, I instantly think of the variety of spices that have been thrown in, the caramelization of the vegetables, and the marriage of all of the flavors. Brown food is beautiful food and after tasting this mouth-watering bowl of black-eyed peas, I’m sure that you will wanting an Indian vacation of your own.

Recipe: Black Eyed Pea Masala

Serves around 6 or so people

Ingredients

  • 2 cups black-eyed peas, soaked in boiling water for about 2-3 hours
  • 2 tablespoons chopped ginger
  • 1 red onion, chopped
  • 1 Thai chili, finely sliced
  • 1 tablespoon cumin seeds
  • 2 teaspoons coriander seeds
  • 1 black cardamom pod
  • 4 cloves
  • 2 fresh bay leaves
  • 2 tomatoes, diced
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 1 cup water
  • 1/2 teaspoon garam masala
  • 2 tablespoons fresh cilantro, chopped
  • salt, to taste

Method

In a small pan over high heat, dry toast the cumin and coriander seeds, till they begin to color and release their aromas. This should take around 2-3 minutes. Then place your toasted seeds in a spice grinder and grind the mixture into a fine powder. In a large saucepan or pot, heat up some oil over medium high heat. Add the black cardamom pod, cloves, and bay leaves, and allow these spices to toast for a minute or so. Then add the onions and cook till they are softened. Then add the ginger, garlic, and toasted cumin-coriander powder. Allow the mixture to sweat in the pan for a couple of minutes, till the onions begin to caramelize. Then add the tomatoes and stir quickly to release some of the spices from the sides of the pan. Add the black-eyed peas and mix to coat the peas with the wet masala. Then add 1 cup or so of water. You want enough water to create a sauce, but you do not want to make a soup. Bring the mixture to a boil, and then simmer over low heat for about 50 minutes. I know, this seems like a long time, but you want to black-eyed peas to soften, using canned black-eyed peas or a pressure cooker can speed up this process. Once the masala has finished simmering season the dish with salt, and finish it of with a sprinkle of garam masala and a garnishing of cilantro. Serve warm with basmati rice, roti, or naan bread.

Cooking Notes

  • Black cardamom is spice that used in many Indian dishes in manner similar to green cardamom. However, the flavor profile of black cardamom is very different. It has a very smoky aroma and is used in bean and legume dishes, while the sweet, vanilla-like aroma of green cardamom works well with desserts. You can find black cardamom pods in Indian grocery stores.
  • Garam Masala is a blend of many spices that, in accordance with Ayurvedic principles, is meant to heat the body. Add it to dishes right before serving to allow the aromas and flavors of its spices to shine through. You can find this in Indian grocery stores and larger supermarkets.
  • When cooking any sort of dried legumes, beans, or peas, it’s important to add the salt AFTER the beans/peas/legumes have cooked through. Adding salt during the cooking process could cause them to remain tough.
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