Rajma-Chawal, red kidney beans cooked the Indian way and served with steaming hot rice. Too cliché to add on a food blog in this age? If you google rajma chawal, you'll find at least a dozen odd recipes for this quintessential North Indian favourite food, and about ten of those will give you an idea of how to make it. There will be finer differentiating nuances for sure, but the ingredients and the process will largely remain the same.
Why am I writing about it then? This is for S, my husband who will eat a bowl of rajma chawal any day of the year. This is for the memories of Auntie A and her kitchen in Bombay where she taught me to make rajma chawal in a very Punjabi way. This is for that girl I was, growing up on the hot humid coasts of India, where rajma is not sought after like in the north, and beaming with delight every time mother made it, which was rare. This is to document my homestyle method of making rajma chawal. This is for my fellow nomenclature-nerd and rasam guru, Deepa of Paticheri fame who asked me for a good rajma recipe a while ago. And, this is for the food stories I tell.
A minimal ingredient dish but time consuming nevertheless...
Like many recipes that rely on pantry staples, rajma masala also follows suit. But, it isn't a dish that gets done in a jiffy. Contemporary instant pots and whatnots will tell you otherwise, but unless you pre-soak and boil the beans first, make an onion tomato base that's slow cooked and done to perfection and let the beans simmer in this base at length, your rajma will not taste great. It's "high-maintenance" that way, although it's extremely forgiving when it comes to spices.
You can surely make a delicious rajma without garam masala or whole spices of any kind. The usual suspects coriander, cumin, chilies, ginger, garlic and turmeric will do. But they all have to be cooked slowly, and prolonged, with the onions and tomatoes. You will be rewarded at the end of all the grind with the creaminess of the beans balanced with all the spices and the acid of the tomatoes! Your patience will pay off, I assure!
Rajma Chawal: A warm blanket on a cold day
Living in Canada and watching the Indian diaspora on social media, I have come to realize that often, if not always, cooking rajma chawal seems momentous. Back in India, where the dish originates, although thoroughly loved, cooking rajma at home is roz ka khana, everyday food that's popular in the kitchens of North Indian homes, especially in Delhi and further north including Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir and the lower hilly areas of Kumaon and Garhwal in Uttarakhand, from where S belongs.
It's logical that the bean dish is popular in cooler climates as one burns more calories in cold temperatures and the creamy bean dish suffices. Unsurprisingly, it was never a staple at my place in Odisha (east coast of India) or on the western coast and the south (where I lived and worked for many years) where the climate is hotter and wetter.
A few morsels of history...
Although rajma masala is celebrated as a desi, Indian cuisine, dish, the bean itself originated in Mexico and Peru, and arrived first on the coasts of India (where the bean is not so popular) with the many European merchants and travellers in the 15th and 16th centuries. This put me on a trail to understand how rajma ended up in the hills of North India. Ancient Indian texts don't mention the bean at all because it wasn't available in India until the Columbian exchange of the 15th and 16th centuries. Many ingredients that are run-of-the-mill in Indian food today, like potatoes, tomatoes, chilies and more, came with the Portuguese who brought these from the the New World and brought them into vogue in the sub-continent where they colonized ports like Goa and Mangalore.
The kidney bean is also believed to have followed this route. But Aditi Natasha Kini's recent article on Eater helped me gain a new perspective. She mentions:
It is possible that the bean made it up through the cattle caravan routes to the Mughal Empire in the north — but the recipe for rajma masala doesn’t really crop up until as recently as around 130 years ago, says culinary archaeologist Kurush Dalal. Dalal thinks it’s unlikely the kidney bean was traded by the Portuguese, even if they ate it themselves, because it is not mentioned in medieval Indian texts. “There is evidence that the French brought the rajma bean from Mexico to Pondicherry,” he tells me, calling the French the “best conduit.”
Rajma Masala: A fruit of age-old globalization
Many will argue that rajma masala is India's own take on the foreign kidney bean. I don't fully agree with this. At its heart, the Indian style rajma isn't a far cry from the Mexican bean chilli except the spices, if I look at the overall method and broad taste spectrum. Food never travels in isolation, and I find it hard to believe that the kidney bean would have travelled alone with the French and Portuguese to India without a backstory of the bean chilli. Upon its arrival in India, the kidney bean preparation brought the Indian spices and the Asian-originated onion into its fold while keeping its native American chilies and tomatoes intact.
What we love as desi rajma chawal today has roots in far-off central and south America. No wonder a lot of Mexican food feels close to home and generates that feeling of comfort for many Indians living abroad. Globalization isn't a new phenomenon. It has been around for centuries, shaping our food, culture and lifestyles, bringing us closer in ways our ancestors would possibly have never imagined. We have more similarities between people and their practices from other cultures than we may think and acknowledge.
Some memories sway along...
Growing up, rajma was not common at my place as I mentioned earlier. On nights when I saw mother soak up rajma in a bowl, I knew the next day would be a happy one. I could anticipate the smells that would waft from the pressure cooker, and I knew I would be impatient to eat it, just how my friend Sanskriti describes in her rajma chawal story. I love rajma chawal as much as I love my fish-and-rice. Many will find this comparison bizarre. But it's true! My mom would often say while serving me extra ladles of rajma masala over my plate of rice, "There's a secret Punjabi inside you. Some day you will find that match I feel."
She wasn't too far from her prediction. As an adult, I landed up living with a Punjabi lady, Auntie A, my then land lady whose rajma chawal was impeccable. While mother made the entire recipe in the pressure cooker, just the way she made mutton curry, Auntie taught me the classic Punjabi style two-step process: boil the rajma in a pressure cooker and simmer it in masalas in a kadai or wok.
The many forms of rajma masala...
There are different ways of making rajma masala. For example, the Kashmiris will use yogurt instead of tomatoes, the Himachalis will often make it into a madra (a yogurt based dish made usually with legumes), the Punjabis will make it with onions and tomatoes almost always and add coriander and red chilli powders generously, the Kumaonis and Garhwalis will use Himalayan wild mountain spices instead of the garam masala and use less spices than the Punjabis. What I describe here is a Punjabi recipe for rajma masala, which often gets marketed as North Indian rajma across India as well as outside.
On the plate...
To serve, you can dress up any basic salad, and have some pickle on the side optionally. I particularly enjoy it with sliced red onions or radish pickled with beet root. Hot steamed rice is a must although many people enjoy it with rotis too. I usually like to have it with roti the next day when the gravy thickens even more.
There is one, and only one thing, (wait two actually!) to ensure a tasty rajma masala — 1. caramelize and brown the onions very well along with the spices, 2. boil the rajma well such that the bean smudges when pressed between fingers yet holds its shape.
Onions must have a golden brown colour before you add the tomatoes! The oil must float on the sides of the masala getting done in the wok.
There's no short cut to this process, and if you really want your gravy to amalgamate with the beans, you must be patient and cook your base gravy well!
Chop the onions very fine, as fine as you can! Or even better, grate them! Or have half of your onions grated and half chopped fine. You may grind the onions in a blender although I wouldn't recommend it. This takes away from the texture of the final dish.
You may used pureed tomatoes though. Otherwise chop/grate them.
Canned beans won't taste the same as soaked and boiled ones. Get good quality rajma, soak them overnight, drain the water and boil them. The pahadi rajma varieties cook faster than the others, and need a shorter soaking time too. A pressure cooker or instant pot will fasten the boiling process. Don't throw off the water in which the rajma is boiled!! Use it later to add water to the gravy. It has all the deliciousness of the bean.
The garam masala used in this recipe is the North-Indian kind. It has coriander (2 tbsp), cumin (1 tbsp), black cardamom (1), green cardamom (2-3), cinnamon (1-inch), bay leaves (1-2), cloves (4-5) and peppercorns (5-6), mace (2 strands) and sometimes for extra spiciness (2-3) dry red chilies, dry roasted and then ground to a powder with a pinch of salt.
1 cup (about 200 gm) rajma or red kidney bean
To boil rajma: 2.5 to 3 cups, (optional:julienne ginger and tiny pinch of cumin powder. If you do this, you may want to reduce the ginger in the ginger garlic paste)
For the masala: 1 tbsp ghee + 2 tbsp oil or 3 tbsp oil 1 tsp cumin seeds 1 tbsp ginger-garlic paste (1-inch ginger and 5-6 cloves pounded or grated) *If your red chilli powder isn't spicy, chop a green chilli and pound with ginger garlic 1 large or 2 medium sized red onions, chopped fine/grated 1 tsp turmeric powder 1 tsp red chilli powder 1 tsp coriander powder 1 large or 2 medium tomatoes, chopped fine/grated/pureed 1/2 tsp Punjabi (or any other North Indian style) garam masala
2 tsp salt or to taste
Coriander leaves and stems freshly chopped
Soak rajma in water overnight or for at least 4-6 hours. Then wash the rajma and drain the water. Boil the rajma in a pressure cooker with a pinch of salt for 20 minutes. This will be about 4-5 whistles depending on your pressure cooker. After the first whistle on a medium high flame, turn the heat to low-medium and cook the rajma for 20 minutes. If using an instant pot, cook on high pressure for 30 minutes. When the rajma is done, you can literally smell it from the cooker/pot. That's when you know it's ready.
Take the pressure cooker off heat but don't open it yet. Let the steam escape on its own. Same applies to instant pot.
While the rajma is getting boiled, start making the gravy. Heat oil/ghee in a wok or large pan which is deep enough, and then add cumin seeds. Once the seeds sizzle, add the ginger garlic paste and sauté for 10 seconds. Then add the onions and continue sautéing for the next 12-15 minutes on medium heat. The onions will start turning golden brown now with some oil oozing on the side. Add the turmeric, red chilli powder, coriander powder and some salt in that order, and mix everything. Keep sautéing in between patiently for the next 10-12 minutes. To ensure no burning, keep splashing water if needed and de-glaze the wok/pan and scrape any spices sticking to the bottom.
Add the tomatoes now and stir to combine. Now let the tomatoes cook on medium heat. As soon as you add tomatoes, the wok will automatically get de-glazed. Once the tomatoes start wilting, add garam masala, mix and then cover and cook on low to medium heat to ensure that tomatoes are fully done.
Open and check the doneness of the masala. Oil should be releasing on the sides and you should have a thick consistency of the gravy.
Open the pressure cooker/instant pot. Now add the boiled rajma along with the water to the gravy in the wok. Stir and taste the salt. Adjust salt if required. Bring everything to a boil and then leave it to simmer on low heat for 7-10 minutes. Using the back of a ladle, crush some of the rajma (only some) to give a homelike thick consistency to the gravy.
Turn off heat, add the chopped coriander leaves with stems and let the rajma sit in the pot/pan covered for at least 10 minutes before serving.
Don't forget to get the rice ready on the side. Serve hot and enjoy!