Chole, or cinnamon spiced chickpea curry

Food & drink
Chole, or cinnamon spiced chickpea vegetarian and vegan curry

Quite a few years ago, I spent part of a gap year backpacking around India. Delhi was our first stop, and it frightened the pants off us, with its heady blend of poverty, colour, recklessness and determination. I returned to Delhi last month in very different circumstances, and found that little had changed, except everybody had mobile phones.

This is India – a beguiling mistress of a country, a place of countless faces, of grim determination and entrepreneurial zeal, of desperate horror, of beauty, of hope. The experience of India is barely describable, and it’s only after visiting that the country and its neighbours impact on the rest of the world, and my part of the world in particular, becomes clear.

That impact is most visibly seen in the Indian food that enriches the modern British table.

We have a taste for curry, that’s for sure, and that taste is becoming ever more refined.

There are lots of examples of this, but Prashad is probably the best. Prashad is a leading restaurant based in Bradford that cooks Indian vegetarian food with a flair that caught Gordon Ramsay’s eye … they did quite well in one of his ‘best restaurant in Britain’ type competitions a year or two ago, and that sort of attention has inevitably led to other things, including a rather superb cookbook, from which this recipe comes.

It’s  a wonderful little recipe that’s got the lot – devilish heat, complex and interesting flavours, texture and bite – a first class Indian dish that challenges the lazy notion that vegetarian food is bland and uninteresting, smacks it round the face a few times and leaves it stunned, wondering what day it is. It’s really that good.

The base of the dish is chickpeas – two 400g cans of chickpeas, which should be drained, rinsed and heated through in 500ml of water for five minutes. Canned chickpeas are a useful standby ingredient – cheap, filling, nutritious and versatile. Every kitchen should have a couple of cans.

Set the chickpeas to one side, still in their cooking water. They’ll continue to cook a little, but will be fine just left there.

The garam masala for this dish is interesting. It’s a pungent blend of spices, fried through in oil and then ground or blended to a rich, dark paste that has a devilish look about it and a fierce tongue. Heat four tablespoons of a neutral oil such as sunflower or groundnut oil in a frying pan over a low heat, then add 15g of coriander seeds, a cinnamon stick, between three and six dried red chillis, eight cloves, a teaspoon of black peppercorns, six dried bay leaves and a teaspoon of cumin seeds. Keep the spices moving all the time and let them gently colour to a nut-brown hue. This will take about five minutes, after which set the spices aside to cool.

Heat another 75ml of oil in a large pan and add another teaspoon of cumin seeds, stirring them all the time to stop them from burning. Add a medium onion that’s been blended down to a fine paste in a blender (a little water helps this process) to the pan and reduce the heat slightly. Let the onion brown and darken until it becomes brown and rich.

Blend or crush a four centimetre piece of peeled fresh ginger and add that to the onions, along with a can of finely chopped or blended plum tomatoes and one and three-quarter teaspoons of salt, half to one teaspoon of chilli powder, a teaspoon of sugar and another of turmeric.

Stir the chickpeas and their cooking water into the tomato mixture, and add up to 300ml more water if you think it needs it – it may not – and let it simmer for five minutes, during which time, you need to grind the fried spices to a paste.

This can be a little tricky. I started with a pestle and mortar and made a complete hash of it, so scooped everything up into my trusty coffee grinder reserved for spice duties only and blasted it all to oily smithereens. I was slightly concerned that this might damage the grinder, but it came through unscathed. Remarkable pieces of engineering, those little Krups coffee grinders…

Add the ground garam masala and a couple of handfuls of fresh coriander to the chickpeas, stir it well, and leave it to sit for ten minutes for the spices to do their magic, and what magic it is they do. Pure alchemy.

Serve with any Indian style bread.

This recipe is from Prashad Cookbook: Indian Vegetarian Cooking. I’ll review this book later, but don’t bother waiting for that … just buy it. It’s excellent.