Spiced and Smoky: Rajma Chawal (Kidney Beans and Rice)

It seems like wherever you travel in the world, smoky bean stews are on the menu. The French make cassoulet with white beans and ham. In Mexico beans are cooked with spicy chorizo sausage, and over here in America, beans are baked with bacon and brown sugar. With all these countries getting their fair share of smoky bean love in the local cuisine, whose to say that we Indians don’t love them too? In India many legume dishes have a smoky element to them. The only difference is that instead of using meat, we use spice, and that magical spice happens to be black cardamom.

Black cardamom is a member of the cardamom family, but unlike green cardamom, the pods are smoked, which gives them an intense flavor and aroma that pairs beautifully with legumes. Furthermore, when the seeds are blended with cinnamon, cloves, cumin, coriander, peppercorns and other spices, it forms the popular Indian spice blend, garam masala, which does not make Indian food spicy, but it provides a warming element that heats the body up when you eat it.

Rajma Chawal, translated into kidney beans and rice, is a staple in Northern India. The meal itself is a complete protein, as it combines legumes with rice, so it makes a lot of sense nutritionally. It doesn’t hurt that it is quite delicious too. Plump, red kidney beans are boiled with smoky black cardamom and aromatic bay leaves and then simmered in a thick gravy that’s made tangy with copious amounts of tomato paste and even more smoky by adding cinnamon and a dash of garam masala for good measure. It’s not spicy so much to speak, but it definitely makes you feel all warmed up on the inside. Served with some basmati rice enhanced with the flavor of toasted cumin seeds, this is the comfort food that I grew up with, and now I happily share it with you.

Recipe: Rajma Chawal

Ingredients 

  • 2 cups dried kidney beans
  • 1/2 medium onion, chopped
  • 1 large tomato, diced
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 1-inch piece ginger, grated
  • 2 black cardamom pods
  • 2 fresh bay leaves
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 2 pieces flat cinnamon bark OR 1  2-inch cinnamon stick
  • 3 dried red chiles
  • 1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder
  • 1 teaspoon cumin powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon coriander powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon garam masala

Method

Soak the kidney beans overnight and then rinse them. Place the kidney beans in a large pot with plenty of fresh water to cover them. Add the black cardamom pods and bay leaves. Boil the beans for 15 minutes and then reduce the heat to a steady simmer for 1 hour, till the beans are nice and soft to the bite. Remove the pot from the heat and set aside.

Heat some vegetable oil in a saucepan over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, add the cinnamon and the red chilies and allow the spices to toast in the oil for a minute or two. Then add the onions and ginger and sweat for 5 minutes, till the onions are beginning to soften. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Make a hot spot in the pan, add a little more oil, and then add the tomato paste and allow it to caramelize for a minute or two before mixing it with the onions. Then add the cumin, coriander, turmeric, and garam masala. Cook for another minute. Add the chopped tomato and stir for a minute. Now add a ladleful of the bean liquid and stir around quickly, allowing the browned bits to release from the pan. This mixture is called a wet masala and now you need to cook it out for 10-15 minutes over medium heat, till the most of the liquid has evaporated and the oil begins to separate from the sides. Add another ladleful of bean liquid to deglaze the pan, and then add the entire spice mixture to the pot of beans and their liquid. Mix the masala with the beans and place the pot over a low flame. Add salt to taste and simmer the beans for about 30 minutes. Serve hot over basmati rice.

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