I ventured into Indian cooking for what I hope is not a typical reason: addiction. Not to the food itself (though I'm a sucker for the spiced greens known as saag), but to small appliances. My kitchen is full of gadgets, partly because at one time, the only interesting store on my stretch of Wilshire Boulevard was the now-closed Adray's, home of all things electronic. On one particular summer afternoon, the smallest food processor I'd ever seen caught my eye. As soon as I read the instructions on the box, which assured that the machine would be a fabulous spice grinder, I could almost smell the crushed casings releasing their intoxicating volatile oils. I bought the grinder on the spot.
When I got home, my boyfriend was incredulous: Another one? What could you possibly need it for? My confident reply: I need it for that great dish I'm cooking tonight. Of course, since I was bluffing, it behooved me to find something quickly to preserve my dignity.
Flipping through my collection of cookbooks, I realized that easily the most spice-intensive dishes were Indian. And then I found what I was looking for. Garam masala--a highly aromatic flavoring that's sweet yet warming--required six different spice pods and whole seeds: perfect. It was part of an intriguing recipe for spicy, tart channa, or chickpeas, simmered with onions and tomatoes. Chili with a distinctly Indian twist.
A quick expedition to the Indian spice shops on Fairfax Avenue inexpensively yielded everything I needed. I found whole cardamom seeds with their tight, papery skins; fragrant cumin; pale, sour amchoor powder made from unripe mangoes; and cellophane envelopes of turmeric and cayenne. Ground and poured into clear glass cups, the spices--blazing reds, earthy browns and golden yellows--seemed to glow like the pigments of a painting.
These ingredients come together in complex layers of hot, sweet, subtly bitter and sour flavors that seem to meld wonderfully in a delicious and comforting stew that my boyfriend and I have now come to call "chickpea snack." It's simultaneously humble and exotic and, spice trip made, a cinch to prepare. I've often made it a day ahead--it tastes even better after all of the flavors have mingled overnight--as a low-stress addition to a big dinner-party menu. It's great either on its own or served over rice.
One last thing: As it turns out, garam masala comes in big jars among the Middle Eastern groceries at many supermarkets. In a pinch, the store-bought stuff works just fine. But if you can, give yourself a sensory treat and make garam masala yourself.
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Makes 4 to 6 servings
Adapted from "Madhur Jaffrey's World-of-the-East Vegetarian Cooking" (Knopf)
5 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 medium onions, peeled and minced
8 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 tablespoon ground coriander seeds
2 teaspoons ground cumin seeds
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
6 tablespoons fresh tomatoes, skinned and finely chopped
2 20-ounce cans chickpeas, drained
1 cup water
2 teaspoons ground roasted cumin seeds (see below)
1 tablespoon ground amchoor
2 teaspoons sweet paprika
1 teaspoon garam masala (see below)
1/2 teaspoon salt (or to taste)
1 tablespoon lemon juice (or to taste)
1 fresh hot green chile, minced (optional)
2 teaspoons fresh ginger, very finely grated (optional)
Heat oil in wide pot over medium flame. When hot, add onion and garlic. Stir and fry until mixture is soft and transparent. Reduce heat to medium-low and add coriander, cumin (the unroasted amount), cayenne and turmeric. Stir. Add tomatoes to spice mixture and brown slightly. Add chickpeas and water. Stir. Add roasted cumin, amchoor, paprika, garam masala, salt and lemon juice. Stir. Cover, reduce heat to low and simmer 10 minutes. Add optional green chile and ginger, then turn up heat and cook for 30 seconds more.
Ground roasted cumin: Put cumin seeds in dry pan over medium heat, stirring until fragrant. Grind.
Garam masala: In electric spice or coffee grinder, combine: 1 tablespoon cardamom seeds, 1 1-inch stick cinnamon, 1 teaspoon whole cumin, 1 teaspoon whole cloves, 1 teaspoon black peppercorns and about 1/3 average-sized whole nutmeg. Grind until spices are powdery. Makes 3
Food stylist: Norman Stewart; bowls from Sur La Table, Pasadena