What You Learn Making “Channa Masala”

by Nov 28, 2018

Chickpeas in spicy sauce served with rice and perhaps a dollop of cucumber raita, channa is feel-good comfort food.  Classic Indian Cooking by Julie Sahni has been helping me learn how to make simple Indian food at home since my first class with Suneeta Vaswani at Draeger’s 20 years ago.

I got started on this recipe because I wanted to make a “channa masala” for my son, who acquired a taste for all things Tasty Bite after reading about nutrition in his boy scout handbook.  While I like that he can microwave a healthy snack for himself, as a cook it became embarrassing to buy so many single-serve, ready-to-eat meals.  I flipped to the index in Julie’s book but didn’t see “channa masala”,  so went with the closest thing, “khatte channe” — “khatte” meaning tangy and “channe” referring to chickpeas (as also “channa”, “chana”, and “chole”).

The tangy in Julie’s khatte channe comes from tamarind, a tropical fruit that grows in long pods that resemble fava bean pods. It’s typically processed into sticky blocks from which you pinch off a piece to soak in water, separating pulp from seeds.  The resulting tamarind flavored liquid is used frequently in Southeast Asian cooking.  Alternatively, you can use tamarind concentrate, small jars of which are now  widely available in grocery stores.  As with most ingredients, the brands vary in flavor, so taste several and find your favorite—it’s quite sour but adds an interesting dimension to dishes like channa.  (And if you ever do get to visit an Indian or Thai grocery, buy the block of tamarind and taste the difference—you’ll notice a complementary sweetness that the concentrates sometimes lack.)

Here’s what I learned from making channa:

  1. Cut out the extra trips to the store and cooking gets easier.  A lot of Indian cooking comes down to 4 ingredients:  onions, garlic, ginger and tomatoes.  Keep these basics on hand and a healthy, home-cooked dinner is closer than you may think.
  2. Unique flavors are interesting but not required.  Julie’s Khatte Channe uses tamarind to provide a pleasing tanginess, but if you don’t want to add another little jar to your collection in the refrigerator, skip it.  Or use pomegranate molasses, which you can store in the pantry.  My point is, dishes like channa are going to taste good even without the special ingredients.
  3. Home cooking can be a calming end-of-day ritual.  Choose simple, one-dish meals to make on the days when you’re working and save the cooking projects for another time.  This has been a hard one for me to learn, but I’m so much happier when I don’t try to do too much on busy days.

Happy Cooking!

What You Learn Making "Channa Masala"

Adapted from Julie Sahni's "Khatte Channe", Classic Indian Cooking

Servings 4 people


  • 1 yellow onion, diced
  • 1/4 cup avocado oil (or a light olive oil or other neutral cooking oil)
  • 4 cloves garlic minced and mashed with 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 1/4 tsp garam masala (ground spice mix)
  • 1 1/4 tsp ground cumin
  • 1/2 tsp ground turmeric
  • 1/2 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1 cup chopped tomatoes (fresh or canned)
  • 3 inches fresh ginger, peeled and grated (about 1 Tablespoon)
  • 1 tsp tamarind concentrate dissolved in 1 1/2 cups boiling water
  • 2 14.5 oz. cans chickpeas, drained but save 1 cup liquid (4 cups fresh cooked + 1 cup liquid)


  1. Heat the oil in a heavy-bottomed dutch oven or other soup pot.  Add the onion an cook over medium high heat until caramelized, stirring frequently. 

  2. Add the garlic-salt mash, garam masala, cumin, turmeric, and crushed red pepper flakes.  Stir and cook for a minute to bring out the flavor of the spices.  Add the tomatoes and ginger and stir while cooking a couple minutes.   

  3. Add the tamarind-water, drained chickpeas and 1 cup chickpea liquid.  Bring to a boil then reduce heat to maintain a gentle simmer and cook for 15 minutes. 

  4. Serve with basmati rice and cucumber raita (see note).

Recipe Notes / Tips

  • Pomegranate Molasses substitute:  Use 2 teaspoons pomegranate molasses + 1 1/2 cups water instead of the tamarind concentrate-water mixture
  • To skip the tamarind completely, omit the tamarind concentrate and just add the 1 1/2 cups water at step 3
  • Simple cucumber raita:  Mix together plain yogurt with small-diced cucumber, a pinch of salt, squeeze of lemon juice, and some mint or parsley

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