Chhole bhature is an absolutely decadent treat that is a must-try if you visit Delhi. It is one of Delhi’s many Punjabi specialties. It is also something I cook less often. Only because of a personal preference for rajma (red kidney beans). I have been working on that for the last six months though.
Over the years I have tried many recipes for chhole, including one for the famous fat-free chhole served with Amritsari kulchas, crispy potato stuffed tandoori bread (not like a naan or roti). Now I have my very own recipe, and it is another family pleaser. And, I have to again admit, I don’t rely on the packaged chana masala, good though they are. And there is a reason for that.
A couple of years ago, we ate a delicious dish of chhole at a friend’s place and I, naturally, asked for the recipe. It was a simple recipe, one using all the usual suspects – ginger, onions, and tomatoes – but all cooked together (with chhole) instead of being bhuno-ed (frying in oil ‘till-the-oil-separates’ stage). She had used MDH chana masala. It was delicious, and I remember we all agreed emphatically as we went over the menu on our drive home. I wasn’t going to let a simple easier method pass me by. I got my pack of chana masala and proceeded to cook a few weeks later.
Yeah, it’s good – but not like your usual chhole.
I was told very clearly that that was good for a change, but at home they expected the same old stuff! Rest, as they say, is vanity! And I am still bhuno-ing away to familial glory. And proud that my family can tell the difference between packaged and freshly made masala! [Dil ke khush rakhne ko, Ghalib, yeh khayal achha hai! – you may humour yourself with this thought, says Ghalib. Of course, he wasn’t talking about chhole, but the idea of heaven and hell 😉 , the atheist that he was]. I use the chana masala now and then, in chhole or hidden in other veggies, just to finish it off.
This recipe has also been perfected over many years and fuses the recipes of countless people, including many deconstructed elements from a lifetime of consuming chhole all over Delhi, in homes and in the lanes. I used to waft between blackened and natural coloured chhole. Like everyone else, my mom uses black tea-leaves to darken the chhole. She would tie them in muslin and throw them in, and later retrieve the muslin pouch. Then she started to think it was too much work and would just add the leaves to the chhole; that I did not care for. Then I saw my friend Poonam (she of the onion-aloo-pakoras-in-kadhi-fame), show me an ingenious method to get the chhole to blacken without using tea leaves (which at that stage of my life, I did not want included in any other food stuff). She made her masala fresh, pan roasting the spices to a black shade of brown! Simple, it was! Just the way you do for goda masala.
Anjali’s announcement jogged the memory and I decided to look for the pictures taken months ago…Here is my recipe for Punjabi chhole, guaranteed to bring the flavours of Delhi streets right into your home. Serve them with bhatura or oven-fresh naan. I served some good naan with these one time, modifying Bee’s method; there is no trace of any photographs or clear memory of the modifications I made. Hopefully the changes will suggest themselves when I try the naan again.
3 C Qabooli Chana (chickpeas/garbanzo beans), soaked overnight (or soak for 3-4 hours in hot water)
½ t soda-bi-carb
1” piece of ginger, peeled and grated
2 C chopped onion
1 C chopped tomatoes
2-3 T oil
2 t red chilli powder
1 t garam masala (optional)
for the masala
2 T (heaped) coriander seeds
1 T anardana (seeds of wild pomegranate), omit if not available
1” piece dalchini or cassia bark
1 t black peppercorns
3-4 badi elaichi (black cardamom)
2 t cumin seeds
1 tejpatta (now that I have cleared all the confusion, I don’t need to use Italics, right?)
1 or 2 whole dry red chillies (optional)
green chillies, slit down the middle
tomatoes, cut into thick wedges
Drain the chhole; some of what makes these beans hard to digest is water soluble and you will get rid of some of that this way. Rinse them out once more to make sure. Put them in a pressure cooker with enough water to cover them (by about an inch). If you like your chhole a bit on the softer side, add half a teaspoon of baking soda (more will make them mush) to the chhole. No salt at this point. Cook under pressure for 20 minutes, or cook covered in a heavy pan till tender.
While the chickpeas are cooking, heat a pan to roast your whole spices – I use my cast iron pan. On medium heat roast the spices, all together, shaking and tossing, till they have almost blackened. Cool and grind to a powder.
Heat oil in a heavy pan (or karahi). Add ginger and stir till just fragrant. Add chopped onions and cook till pink, when they are just getting tinged at the edges. Now add the tomatoes and fry (bhuno), stirring all the time, till the oil separates. There isn’t much oil to separate here, so it has to be done on medium heat and takes a long time (20-30 minutes). If there is some parallel kitchen activity going on, then this works very well. When cooking a larger quantity (or when short on time), I would suggest you increase the amount oil (one and half times or double) since you don’t want to be in the kitchen for the good part of a day.
Once the ginger-onion-tomato is fried well and almost dry, add the fresh ground spice blend, garam masala (optional), and red chilli powder. Add the slit green chillies and stir for a few minutes till your kitchen smells like heaven (I think this is an IFR original quote). Remove the green chillies and add this fragrant paste to the cooked chhole, and salt. Adjust water to your liking – I like mine really thick. Mix and cook (simmer) for 20 minutes, stirring every now and then, or cook in the pressure cooker for 10 minutes.
Serve hot with poori, bhature, or naan, garnished with the green chillies you have set aside, wedges of tomatoes (drizzled with oil and swirled around in a hot pan for a minute or two, if you like), and lime. Now, I love chhole.
- To save on washing up, I make the fried masala in the pressure cooker pot first, take it out, and then cook the chickpeas in it.
- If you have garam masala already, and you are feeling lazy, or you have no faltoo time, use the garam masala + dhaniya powder, and roast a little longer when you add to the ginger-onion-tomato.
- If you need to cook low-sodium, omit baking soda, and just cook the chhole a little longer till they are of desired tenderness.