Favorites from the Pind: Punjabi Chole

This is without a doubt, my favorite food. Just thinking about it makes my mouth water, and whenever it is made, I lick the bowl completely clean. I have been waiting quite some time to share this recipe with you, but of course I had to wait till I had mastered it on my own.

Chickpeas are known by many names in India including channa and chole. The recipe reflects how they would be made in the pinds, or villages of the Punjab, a state in the northwest corner of India which is marked by its robust local cuisine and culture. Chickpeas are cooked in an intoxicating masala full of intense flavors. Whole cumin and coriander seeds are toasted until golden brown and then ground into a dark brown powder, bursting with an aroma unmatched by any readily ground spices. As Punjabi Chole can tend to fall into the family of street foods, particularly in the capital city of Delhi, a sour element is necessary. A good amount of amchoor does the trick. Made from unripe mangoes, this powder is not evident upon the first bite, but it surfaces later and leaves a tingling sensation on your tongue as it goes down.

The color of chole is just as intense as the flavor. The chickpeas are boiled with black tea bags, which don’t contribute much, aside from the fact that they dye the chickpeas and give them a deep brown color. No true chole is complete without this step. I also have to talk about the smoky factor again. Just as much as any other culture in the world, we Indians love our legumes smoky, and that is accomplished with the ever-present black cardamom pods.

Chole’s partner crime varies depending on where you eat it. Order this on the streets of Delhi, and a deep-fried battura (leavened flatbread) will wind up on your plate alongside the chatpatta chickpeas. If you were to travel to an Indian restaurant in the United States, chole is bound to be served with a puffy puri the size of your head. Back in the villages of Punjab though, I think a fresh naan or kulcha, hot out of the tandoor would make an excellent companion. I have yet to tackle Indian bread-making for myself, so I eat and serve chole with my favorite brand of store-bought naan or battura. 

Punjabi Chole is a favorite of everyone young and old, and the good news is that you don’t have to travel all the way to the pind to enjoy it. While I have enjoyed it all my life, it really cemented itself as food for my soul during a vacation to Gujarat some five years ago. Even though Ahmedabad is nowhere near Amritsar, the truth of the matter is that as long as it’s made in the hands of a competent individual, chole can be beautiful no matter where you eat it. That particular bowl was everything I had ever wanted and it felt to right to call it some of the best I had tasted.

Recipe: Punjabi Chole

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups dried chickpeas
  • 1 red onion, chopped
  • 3 tablespoons fresh ginger, peeled and minced
  • 2 black cardamom pods
  • 2-3 black tea bags
  • 2 bay leaves, fresh
  • pinch asafoetida
  • 2 teaspoons cumin seeds
  • 2 teaspoons coriander seeds
  • 1 tablespoon plus 1/2 teaspoon amchoor powder
  • 1 teaspoon garam masala
  • salt to taste
  • extra red onion, finely chopped for garnishing

Method:

Soak the dried chickpeas for 12-24 hours in lukewarm water. Then transfer them to a pressure cooker with enough water to submerge them, the black cardamom pods, the tea bags, and the bay leaves. Bring the chickpeas to a boil, cover and seal the lid, and reduce to a simmer. The pressure will gradually build up in the pot, and you should allow the cooker to whistle at least three times. Remove the lid and taste the chickpeas for doneness. They should be soft and tender, but not completely mushy. Remove the pot from the heat and set aside. If you don’t have a pressure cooker, you can alternatively simmer the chickpeas over low heat for about 45 minutes. The advantage of using a pressure cooker is that this time will be reduced to a mere 2o-25 minutes.

In a small saucepan, toast the cumin and coriander seeds over high heat, till they are golden brown and aromatic. Grind the seeds in a coffee grinder till they have formed a fine powder. Set the powder aside. In a medium saucepan, heat up some oil over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, add the asafoetida. Allow it to sputter and crackle in the oil for a minute or so. Then add the onion and cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the ginger and stir around the pan until its aromatic, about 1 minute. Then add the toasted cumin and coriander powder, 1 tablespoon of the amchoor, and 1/2 teaspoon of the garam masala. Stir these spices around the pan for a minute or so, till they are beginning to release their aromas.  Add a little water to the pan to release the browned bits that might be stuck to the bottom. Then pour the contents of the pan into the pot with the chickpeas. Put the pot back on the heat and bring the mixture to a boil. Season to taste with salt. Simmer the chickpeas over low heat for about 20-25 minutes, till the masala has permeated into the chickpeas and till they are borderline mushy. Add the remaining 1/2 teaspoon of amchoor, and 1/2 teaspoon garam masala. Stir around then turn off the heat. Serve the chole with naan breads and plenty of finely chopped red onion for garnishing.

Cooking Notes:

  • Amchoor powder, along with black cardamom pods, and asofoetida is found at Indian grocery stores. If you can’t get your hands on amchoor, dried pomegranate seeds make a good substitute. Just make sure to grind them up pretty fine before adding to the masala.
  • I find that toasting and grinding you own cumin and coriander seeds for this recipe really makes a world of a difference. Freshly ground spices have a far more intense flavor than the readily ground powders you will find in the grocery store. At the end of the day, this recipe is really all about the spices, so its important to give the finest treatment to each of them.
  • This recipe works best with dried chickpeas, but if you are really in a hurry, canned chickpeas can make an okay substitution. When using these, skip the pressure cooker part, and begin by cooking your masala in a pot. Add the black cardamom with the asafoetida, and throw in the bay leaves with the onions. After you have deglazed the masala with a little water, add the canned chickpeas with enough water to submerge them and add salt to taste. Continue with the recipe as directed.
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