Chole: Chickpeas cooked in Punjabi style

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Old Delhi Style Chole without onion-garlic | Home Style Onion-Tomato Chole

If I look back to the time fourteen years from now and Auntie A's (my then land lady) kitchen I had access to then, I remember chickpeas (garbanzo beans) or chole as they're called in Punjabi was the first thing I cooked or rather what Auntie taught me to cook. You perhaps know this dish as chana masala in many Indian restaurants.


Chickpeas, world's oldest and second most widely cultivated legume after soybean, have been growing in India and Pakistan from time immemorial. The local variety popular in these countries is the kala chana or desi chana, which is smaller in size with a darker skin than the variety known as garbanzo beans. The bigger lighter coloured garbanzo beans are called kabuli chana in India, the name implicitly pointing that the variety came from Kabul, Afghanistan. It's this kabuli chana that's celebrated as chole in Punjab and Delhi or as chana masala.


Chole from west Punjab or the present-day Pakistan, which found its home in Delhi after India's partition in 1947, makes a hearty meal for anyone who loves Delhi's street food or has ties to that undivided Punjab that fostered this version of chickpeas preparation. Ask my husband, S, who grew up in Nainital and Delhi, and will give anything to have a plate of hot steaming chole any day in the week. Usually served with rice or flat breads like roti, naan or kulcha (stuffed flatbread made in a tandoor), chole is undoubtedly one of the most popular dishes in Punjabi and Delhi cuisine. But why?


The Silk Road connection


The answer lies somewhere deep in the past on the Silk Road, a network of trade routes connecting China and the Far East with the Middle East and Europe. Although silk was the road's primary mover — and later pearls, gems, spices, carpets, glass, medicines, pottery and weapons — it was food that kept the road sentient and preserved its history in culinary bonds across towns, cities and countries. Chickpeas are one such souvenir of the Silk Road. Originating in present-day south-eastern Turkey and adjoining Syria (think ancient Mesopotamia), chickpeas travelled to Europe and eastward to Persia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, on and off the Silk Road.


When merchants, wayfarers, philosophers and warriors, carried their culinary habits, food ingredients and cooking methods along the road, everything was undoubtedly susceptible to change and influenced by cultural exchanges. But who influenced whom? Where is the origin of one dish and who modified it where? And, does it matter so much as food itself that was redefined and reshaped, shared and loved? The latter matters more to me, which brings me to the Silk Road influence on the Punjabi and Delhi style preparation of chickpeas that typically uses pomegranate seeds. Both chickpeas and pomegranates are featured throughout Middle Eastern cooking, and travelling from Afghanistan along the Silk Road, the two ingredients found a new culinary dimension in the North West Frontier (NWF) province of undivided India (Khyber Pakhtunkhwa as its known today), Rawalpindi in present-day Pakistan and Amritsar in present-day India.


The many versions of Chole


The versions from NWF and Rawalpindi (the Rawalpindi version often referred as Pindi Chole) tend to be drier and bereft of any onion-tomato gravy or chilies. The spices were minimal but heady with coriander, cumin, asafoetida (which came from Afghanistan) and dried fenugreek leaves being prominent and a good dose of powdered pomegranate seeds for the much needed sourness to balance the spices. New ingredients like black and green cardamoms, peppercorns, nutmeg and cloves were added as the Pindi Chole travelled to eastern Punjab. These spices are used fairly in the Punjabi garam masala (there are different versions of garam masalas in India!) and their addition to the chole spice mix makes much sense. With new world vegetables like potatoes, tomatoes and chilies coming to India with the Europeans, these readily found a place in different renditions of chole across Punjab and later Delhi.


Old Delhi and its love for chole


Chole-bhature (chickpeas served with leavened fried bread) has a special spot in Delhi's street food, especially Old Delhi. With its sprawling gardens, havelis and fountains gone after emperor Shah Jahan's reign, what kept Old Delhi alive was its food that has survived amidst the remnants of old historical buildings and forgotten courtyards turned into stores, warehouses and shops. With its parathewalahs, chaiwalahs, chaatwalahs and many other 'walahs' — makers, vendors and menders — almost every nook in Old Delhi prepares, cooks, sells and relishes food in some form.


More often than not, the food vendors in Old Delhi are migrants adept in feeding the hungry, needy and homesick crowds as well as those who come for a flavour of that Delhi that exists in recollections or tourists looking for an experience. The chole you'll find here has much in common with the version that travelled from Pakistan after India's partition in 1947— dark, almost black in colour owing to the spice blend rich in dark toned spices like black cardamom, cloves and peppercorns, prolonged cooking in iron kadhais (woks) which enhances the dark colour and boiling chickpeas with dried amla Indian gooseberries. A common trick that was adopted later to replicate this blackish colour was boiling chickpeas with tea leaves. Anardana (dried pomegranate seeds) and/or tamarind are the preferred souring agents in this style of chole which is mostly bereft of tomatoes and even onions or garlic. You may find slices of onions or julienned ginger garnished on top, but an onion-tomato based gravy is rare.


Chickpeas—or Kabuli Chanaare not indigenous to India (believed to have originated in Turkey and came to India through Kabul), yet Indians not only adopted this legume enthusiastically but owned it with pride. It's one of the most loved protein in the Indian vegetarian diet. Its mushy texture after being boiled yields it a perfect mate to many leafy and vegetable curries as well. There are many versions of making this legume, the quintessential is perhaps the way Punjabis make it as chickpeas are a staple in the Punjabi diet.

Pro tips tp make good Punjabi chole


This is my version of how I grew up eating and watching Punjabi chole being made at home. It has a coarse homelike texture to its gravy, and does not involve a lot of oil and ghee.


Every family has its own tradition of cooking, and I particularly tried to trace the many facets of chole in the Punjabi families that I have known or the north Indian restaurants I reckon for their authentic taste. Here is what I have learned about the authentic way of cooking Punjabi chole:

  • Do not use a lot of salt when boiling the chole as it hinders the process of boiling. Boil the chole very well. They should be soft such that they break when pressed with fingertips.

  • Always flavour the water in which you boil the chole, and never throw the water after draining the chole out of the boiled water. Use this water in the gravy later - it will take the taste a notch higher!

  • For the dark color of the chole, use dried amla (Indian gooseberries) and/or tea leaves/bags in the water when boiling. If available, use an iron wok for sautéing that turns the chole darker.

  • Never take out the chole from the boiled water and lay them dry. Let them stay in the water until you add them to the gravy.

  • If you're using onions and tomatoes in your chole, learn the technique of making a perfect onion-tomatoes masala (spice paste) which is the base of most Punjabi dishes.

  • Always use a good souring agent in the gravy, like anardana (dried pomegranate seeds) or amchur (dry mango powder) and/or tamarind water. This imparts tanginess to the gravy and balances the spiciness. Since the spice blend for chole has a lot of hot spices, a good amount of sourness is necessary to cut across the heat and balance the flavours

  • After adding the chole to the onion-tomatoes gravy, mash some of the chole to thicken the consistency of the gravy.

 

Recipes


Did you check the pro tip?


Old Delhi Style Chole without onion-garlic


Ingredients
  • 1 cup of overnight (6-8 hours) soaked chickpeas or chole

For the chole masala

  • Whole spices: 3-4 black cardamoms 8-10 black peppercorns 2-3 green cardamoms 2-4 cloves 1-2 strands of mace 1/2 nutmeg 1/2-inch cinnamon stick 2-3 bay leaves 1/2 tbsp kasoori methi or dried fenugreek leaves 1/4 tsp fenugreek seeds

  • Powdered spices: 1 tbsp coriander powder 1 tsp cumin powder 1/2 tsp red chili powder a pinch of hing or asafoetida 1/8 tsp black salt (optional)

  • 1 tsp anardana (dried pomegranate seeds powder) or amchur

For boiling chole

  • 1-2 dry whole red chilies (Kashmiri will be great), 1 bay leaves, 1 big or 2 small sticks of cinnamon, 1 black cardamom, 3-4 dried amla (Indian Gooseberry) or 1/2 to 1 tsp black tea leaves or 1 teabag (one teabag for every cup of soaked chole)

For tempering chole

  • 2 tbsp neutral oil + 1 tsp of trans-fat free ghee or clarified butter

  • Chole masala

  • 2-3 tbsp tamarind water (tamarind soaked in water and then the pulp retained)

For garnishing: julienne cut ginger, sliced onions, slit green chilies (optional) and lots of chopped coriander leaves.

Method

Boil the chole:

  1. In a muslin cloth or a tiny drawstring muslin bag, add the dry whole spices and amla and tea leaves/tea bags (if using) and make a small bundle of the cloth.

  2. In a pressure cooker or instant pot, place the cloth of spices, and then add the soaked chole to it.

  3. Add ¼ teaspoon of salt and let the chole boil for about half an hour.

  4. Open the pressure cooker/instant pot and take out the cloth bag of spices. Drain the chole and keep the water for use later in cooking.

Prepare the chole masala: (You can also make this ahead of time)

  1. In a pan, dry roast the whole spices until aromatic.

  2. Add the powdered spices and dry roast for a few seconds.

  3. Let the spices cool and then blend to fine powder. Keep aside.

Temper the chole:

  1. In a wok or pan, add oil + ghee. Once hot, add boiled chole, the prepared chole masala along with tamarind water and give a good mix.

  2. Add about 1/2 cup of the preserved chole water and adjust consistency. Add more water if needed. Let the mixture simmer for 15-20 minutes on low heat.

  3. Switch off heat when done and garnish before serving.

Although this version is more popular with bhatura, we eat with rice as well along with some salad. The leftovers make a great chaat with fried potatoes and green chutney and yogurt.


 

Home Style Chole with onion-tomatoes

Ingredients
  • 1 cup of overnight (6-8 hours) soaked chickpeas or chole

  • Dry whole spices for the water to boil chole: 1-2 dry whole red chilies (Kashmiri will be great), 1 bay leaves, 1 big or 2 small sticks of cinnamon, 1 black cardamom, 3-4 dried amla (Indian Gooseberry) or 1/2 to 1 tsp black tea leaves or 1 teabag (one teabag for every cup of soaked chole)

  • For the gravy: 2 tbsp neutral oil + 1 tsp of trans-fat free ghee or clarified butter 1-2 bay leaves 1 tsp cumin seeds 1-inch ginger + 4-5 cloves of garlic minced 2 medium sized onions finely chopped a generous pinch of asafoetida 1/4 tsp turmeric 1 teaspoon coriander powder 1 teaspoon red chili powder 1/2 teaspoon carom seeds powder (take the carom seeds and mash in a mortar with a pestle) 2 medium tomatoes finely chopped 1 tsp garam masala 1 tsp pomegranate seeds or amchur (dried mango powder).

  • For garnishing: julienne cut ginger, slit green chilies (optional) and lots of chopped coriander leaves

Notes: I make my own garam masala at home, but you can use the store-bought garam masala too. My homemade garam masala: dry roast 1/2 tsp caraway seeds (optional), 1 tsp cumin seeds, 2 tbsp coriander seeds, 2 black and 3-4 green cardamoms, 1-2 bay leaves, 3-4 cloves, 5-6 peppercorns, 1 cinnamon stick, a tinge of nutmeg or a few strands of mace, and crush in a mortar with a pestle or a spice mixer.

Method

Boil the chole:

  1. In a muslin cloth or a tiny drawstring muslin bag, add the dry whole spices and the tea leaves and make a small bundle of the cloth.

  2. In a pressure cooker or instant pot, place the cloth of spices, and then add the soaked chole to it.

  3. Add ¼ teaspoon of salt and let the chole boil for about half an hour.

Make the gravy:

  1. Place a wok or pot on medium heat, and add oil and ghee. Let the oil smoke up a bit, and then add the bay leaf.

  2. When the spices impart aroma, add the cumin seeds and let them splutter.

  3. Add the minced ginger and garlic and sauté for about 1 minute till they turn golden.

  4. Add the chopped onions and sauté for the next 5 to 6 minutes.

  5. Add the asafoetida and continue frying the onions.

  6. Add turmeric, red chili powder and carom seeds powder, and sauté for about 15 minutes or until they turn brownish. Keep adding splashes of water if the masala sticks to the bottom of the wok.

  7. Add the tomatoes and mix for about 2-3 minutes.

  8. Add the garam masala, salt to taste and mix again for about 1 minute.

  9. Cover the wok/pot and let the tomatoes cook. You can open in between and check the doneness.

Mix boiled chole with the gravy:

  1. Open the pressure cooker/instant pot and take out the cloth bag of spices. Let the chole remain in the water.

  2. Open the wok/pot. Check the mushiness of the tomatoes and give it a mash if needed.

  3. Drain the chole from the water and add to the wok, sauté for 2-3 minutes, and then add the boiled flavoured water.

  4. Add extra water if needed (depending on the consistency you like) and mash some of the chole. Mix everything and then let everything simmer for 10 to 12 minutes.

  5. Turn off the heat, garnish and let it cool off a bit before serving!

Chole-chawal (chickpeas with rice) is more of a Sunday thing in my home, and we enjoy this version with some hot steamed rice and the leftovers with hot rotis. A dollop of green chutney on the side adds so much oomph!


 



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