You could say I have a thing for beans – spicy, flavorful beans – specifically of the lentil and chickpea variety, and especially those flavored with Indian spices. You might even call this an unhealthy obsession, except that the beans themselves are very nutritious and, even so, I make sure to eat other, non-bean foods too. Like saag paneer, or tikka masala.
Before Indian food, I never understood the allure of beans (being from San Diego, refried beans – a burrito necessity – were, of course, an exception). And before moving to San Francisco five years ago, I had never had Indian food. Go ahead and gasp. But, again, being from coastal North County San Diego, we didn’t really, um, have Indians there.
I now recognize this to be a great tragedy – culturally, culinarily, and otherwise. But at the time, I didn’t know better, and so I was more than happy to chomp on the authentic Mexican food served up at Cessy’s and consider myself more “in touch” with and “appreciative” of other cultures than the kids scarfing down animal-style burgers from In-N-Out. Luckily, my post-grad job brought me up to the city, where Mehfil changed my life forever … as far as Indian food and beans are concerned.
I can’t recall how Jay and I stumbled upon the restaurant, but I’ll surmise that, because it’s a mere three or four blocks from our apartment, we must have walked past on our way home from a weekend outing to Union Square or Chinatown, and our tummies, empty from a day’s worth of walking, must have been lured in by the irresistible scent of aromatic spices wafting out of Mehfil’s dining room and down Second Street.
And once we tried Mehfil, we were hooked. For the first month, we averaged something around two visits per week. As a result, we became pretty good friends with the servers, who recommended other dishes to try, including their Punjabi Channa Paneer.
Chana Punjabi, as it’s called elsewhere, is composed of chickpeas cooked in a curry of cumin, cardamom, ginger, red pepper flakes, red onions, and jalapeño. The complex, spicy flavor of the curry goes well with the slight creaminess of the chickpeas, and it’s all topped off with a delightful bit of sourness from amchur (dried unripe mango) powder and anaardaana (pomegranate seed) powder or, if you can’t find those, fresh lemon juice.
Serves 2 if accompanied with rice
If you love Indian food as much as I do, do your best not to be intimidated by the long list of spices in the recipes. I postponed making any sort of Indian food at home for about six months to a year just because of the scarily lengthy spice list, and especially for this recipe, that was a mistake. Chana punjabi is so easy – and incredibly cheap! – to make at home, and it uses the same spices as many other Indian recipes. Now that I have invested in the spices, it’s opened the door to further experimentation with Indian cooking (and no, I haven’t found a butter chicken or tikka masala recipe that’s good enough to share … yet). Also, when I decide to make chana punjabi, I usually only have to make a run for jalapeños because I already have the remaining ingredients on hand.
2 c. cooked chickpeas (cook dried ones at home, or drain and rinse canned chickpeas)
1/2 tsp. plus 2/3 tsp. ground cumin
1 cardamom pod’s seeds, ground (I smashed them with a pestle)
1 clove, ground (or smashed with a pestle)
1/2-inch piece of ginger, minced or grated
1 Tbsp. canola oil
pinch of black pepper
1 tsp. red pepper flakes
1 1/2 c. red onion, diced
2 jalapeños, diced (about 1/2 c.)
1 tsp. turmeric
1/2 tsp. garam masala (or make your own)
dash of cayenne pepper
3/4 to 1 c. water
1/2 tsp. amchoor (dried unripe mango) powder, or juice of 1/2 lemon
1/2 tsp. anaardaana (pommegranate seed) powder, or juice of 1/2 lemon
lemons for garnish
In a large pan over medium-high heat, cook the oil, 1/2 tsp. cumin, cardamom, clove, black pepper, and red pepper flakes for 1-2 minutes, until cumin browns a bit. Add ginger, stir, and cook for 30 seconds.
Add red onion and jalapeños. Stirring frequently, cook for approximately 20 minutes, until onions turn dark brown; as needed (approximately 6 times), add 1 Tbsp. water at a time, and scrape the bottom of the pan with a spoon to keep the spices and onions from burning and to redistribute the flavorful browned bits.
Add amchur and anaardaana powders, if using (if not, save the lemon juice substitute for later), along with 2/3 tsp. cumin, turmeric, and garam masala, and cook for 30 seconds.
Stir in cayenne pepper, 3/4 c. water, and chickpeas. Mash some of the chickpeas with the back of a spoon or fork. Bring to a simmer over low heat; cook, partially covered, or 15 minutes. Stir in lemon juice (if not using amchur and anaardana), and add salt to taste. Serve alone or atop rice, garnished with a lemon wedge.