Chana Masala: Art You Can Eat

It is inevitable that any time at an artists colony will be plump with the exchange of ideas.

When you toss artists from disparate backgrounds into a small cauldron and essentially seal it for a month, art, words, music and and more will certainly be shared. And so it was for me at the Djerassi Resident Artists Program in Woodside, Calif., earlier this year, where I spent a month isolated on a mountain ranch with a tiny crew of colony mates that included talented artists from Mongolia, India and Austria, a wonderful choreographer and composer and writers who inspired me every day.

In addition to art, however, we ended up having some rich exchanges over something surprising: Cooking.

As you may have read before on this blog, colony chef Dan Tosh fed us tremendously well on weekdays. But on weekends, left to our own devices, we ended up taking to the stove to teach one other a little about the dishes that fueled us in our own homes. Which is how I came to learn to make out-of-this-world chana masala …

As much as I love chana masala — or chole masala, as it’s also known — I’d never even thought of making it. The potent stew of heavily spiced chickpeas is so complex in flavor I’d always been certain I’d never be able to make a good version of it. So, why try?

As it is with anything, however, it turns out all you need is a good teacher. Enter Surabhi, one of my housemates at Djerassi, who makes it regularly at home and arrived at the colony bearing the very spices to whip up a batch.

This is the brand she recommends — I appreciated the fact that in addition to being “flavourful and tasty” it was also “hygienic.”

So on a sunny Saturday in May, we gathered in the house kitchen and let Surabhi (left) lead the way.

First, she tossed coarsely chopped onions, ginger, tomatoes, peppers and garlic into a blender to create a spice paste.

Next, she heated up a large pot — we were feeding eight people, after all — filled with a little olive oil, bay leaves and cumin seeds.

When that mixture was fragrant, she poured in the nicely blended spice paste.

When that came to a boil, she added canned chickpeas, water and more to the mixture and let that simmer for a while.

Before long, the heady smell of chana masala surrounded us. Iris cooked up some rice, topping it with cilantro.

Christy — who wowed us all with many an artful salad that month — put one together.

And before long, we were gathered around our cozy dining table to eat.

How was it? Intensely spicy — and deliciously fiery, making for a meal that was as memorable as the art and the conversations that peppered our month together on the ranch.

Any work of art, however, is always best shared. So in that spirit, here’s Surabhi’s chana masala recipe. Now, go forth and create …


Surabhi’s Chana Masala Recipe


  • 4 to 5 tomatoes
  • 1 inch piece of ginger, peeled
  • 2 large cloves garlic, peeled
  • 2 serrano peppers
  • 1.5 big onions, peeled and coarsely chopped
  • 4 TB olive oil
  • 1 TB cumin seeds
  • 4 to 5 bay leaves
  • 4 15 oz. cans chickpeas
  • 1 TB dried pomegranate seeds
  • 1 TB sugar
  • 8 cups water
  • 1 tsp tamarind paste, more to taste
  • 4 TB chana masala spice blend, more to taste
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Place tomatoes, ginger, garlic, peppers and onions in a blender and blend together until well mixed.

Heat olive oil in a wok until the oil is very hot then add cumin and bay leaves, frying until they are fragrant. Then add the mixture from the blender, saute for five minutes then add a little salt,four TB of chana masala spice blend and pomegranate seeds, stir-frying everything for about 15 minutes until it becomes a thick paste and starts to stick to the pan.

Add four cans of chickpeas (undrained), water and stir well. Simmer for 10 minutes then add sugar (if you’re not using pomegranate seeds) and tamarind paste. Continue to simmer for about 15 to 20 minutes until the mixture is at your desired consistency. Serve immediately with rice.


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2 thoughts on “Chana Masala: Art You Can Eat

  1. Indian food is one of those things that I keep thinking I should learn… and keeping being too chicken to actually start. That sounds pretty manageable, though, and I do love chana masala!

    • I’m the same way. I’ve recently been cooking Indian with some success using this book that an aunt gave me though: The Best Curry Cookbook Ever. What’s great about it is, each recipe comes with step-by-step photos so you can see how the dish is supposed to look. Very helpful for this Indian cooking novice!

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