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Forget chickpeas, here are recipes with kala chana

The protein-loaded desi ingredient is perfect for salads, ghasis and dals

(left) Kala Chana Ghashi; and Kala Chana And Beet Salad. (Photographs by Nandita Iyer)
(left) Kala Chana Ghashi; and Kala Chana And Beet Salad. (Photographs by Nandita Iyer)

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If you do a search for chickpea salad (that uses kabuli chana), you will get nearly 43 million results, which goes to show the popularity of this legume worldwide. Chickpeas have taken vegan and vegetarian global cuisine by storm but kala chana has not yet found a following outside the subcontinent. Ever wondered why kala chana continues to be the less popular cousin of kabuli chana?

Kala chana, also called desi chana, or boot in Assam and some parts of Bihar, is found in dark brown, dark green and speckled varieties. The key differences between the desi and kabuli chana are that the former is smaller, darker, with a thick rougher coat. Kabuli chana cooks quicker than desi chana, with softer consistency, so it tends to be favoured in dishes. Desi chana is grown mainly in southern Asia and Ethiopia. Chana dal, or Bengal gram dal, is obtained by hulling and splitting desi chana.

Kala chana is a perfect ingredient for salad meal prep. Once cooked and kept in an airtight container, it stays for nearly a week in the fridge. It adds heft by way of fibre and protein to salads, making it a filling meal. It is mildly flavoured, so it blends in any kind of salad—Indian, Mediterranean or Middle Eastern. These salads stay good when packed in a lunch box. Let’s make desi chana salads more popular!

Did you know that kala chana goes into the making of a very popular snack and street food? Chana jor garam is an example of a food that looks nothing like its original ingredient. If you take a good look at these yellow and brown speckled crisp discs, you will see that the brown specks come from the coat of kala chana.

It was one of the things sold by the chana-mamra vendors who walked around or stationed themselves outside schools when I was a child. My school wasn’t fancy enough to have a tuck shop. Stepping out to the gate of the school and buying one rupee worth of chana jor garam in a newspaper cone for snack break was completely normal. Watching the vendor mix the jor garam with onions and coriander and finish it with a squeeze of lime was enough to send the salivary glands into overdrive.

Kala chana goes through many steps to transform into this crispy addictive snack but these are simple, albeit laborious, processes that can be done easily at home. Large-sized kala chana is soaked in water overnight and pressure-cooked for one whistle until it is partly cooked. The cooked chana is drained and rinsed in water. This is drained thoroughly by letting it sit in a sieve or colander. The drained chana are then flattened into discs, a few at a time, using a plate or a cup. The flattened chana is sun-dried or air-dried for a day to dry out the moisture completely. These discs can then be either deep-fried, baked or air-fried until totally crisp.

The spice mix, usually comprising salt, black salt, red chilli powder, cumin powder and amchoor (mango powder) is sprinkled on the fried crisp chana. In the case of baked or air-fried chana jor garam, it is tossed in a bit of oil into which the spices are mixed. Most of the commercially available jor garam has been flattened in machines and deep-fried in a not-so-healthy mix of cotton seed oil, palmolein and corn oil. At home, virgin coconut oil, cold-pressed groundnut oil or ghee can be used for the final application of spices after baking or roasting the dried flattened chana.

Mix a handful of chana jor garam with chopped onions, green chillies, chopped coriander and some raw mustard oil for an extra kick. Or combine the prepared chana jor garam with some salted nuts and seeds and you have a savoury, healthy and filling desi trail mix ready to munch on as a snack while travelling. You can also use this as the crunch element to top a salad.

Kala Chana Ghashi
A Mangalurean curry
Serves 4

1 cup kala chana (small variety), soaked overnight
1 tsp salt
4 dried red chillies (Byadagi variety)
2 tsp coriander seeds
3 cloves garlic
2-3 flakes of tamarind
Half cup grated coconut
1 tbsp coconut oil
A pinch of asafoetida
Half tsp mustard seeds
1 sprig curry leaves
Quarter tsp fenugreek seeds

Drain the kala chana and pressure-cook with two cups of water and salt for 15 minutes (keep on low flame after the first whistle for 15 minutes).

In a small pan, toast the chillies, coriander seeds, garlic and tamarind for one-two minutes until the chillies are crisp. Transfer to a spice grinder along with coconut and grind to a fine paste using up to half a cup of water.

Add the spice paste to the cooked kala chana and simmer for five minutes.

For the tempering, heat the coconut oil in a small pan. Stir in the asafoetida, mustard seeds, curry leaves and fenugreek seeds. Once the mustard seeds pop, transfer the tempering over the curry. Serve hot with rice or rotis.

Kala Chana and beet salad
Serves 4

2 cooked beets, medium-sized
1 cup cooked kala chana (no cooking liquid)
1 medium-sized onion, thinly sliced
3 tbsp finely chopped coriander
2 green chillies, finely chopped
Quarter cup thick yogurt
Half tsp salt
1 tsp roasted cumin powder

Peel and cut the beets into juliennes. Combine all the ingredients in a bowl and serve chilled.

Also read | Where there’s raw papaya, there’s salad, chutney and avial

Double Tested is a fortnightly column on vegetarian cooking, highlighting a single ingredient prepared two ways. Nandita Iyer’s latest book is Everyday Superfoods. @saffrontrail

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