Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Chana Saag (Spiced Chickpeas and Spinach) & Cookbook Giveaway

This is the first of three recipes that I'll be posting from 660 Curries. Don't forget to leave a comment by 9 pm on Sunday, May 18th to be entered into the drawing for first of three copies of the book (see this post for details).


I had a ton of fresh spinach that I had gotten at the market earlier in the week, so a spinach recipe was in order. I was all set to search the index of the book for spinach recipes, but it so happened that when I opened the book, I landed on the page for this recipe. Since I had almost all the ingredients on hand, I decided to go for it.

Most of the ingredients for this recipe are either already in your house or easily available, but it does require one very special ingredient that is only available at Indian grocery stores: sambar powder. Sambar powder is a South Indian spice blend that is not only used for making sambar (as the name might imply), but also for flavoring vegetable curries. It's made by roasting spices and lentils and then grinding them to make a powdered spice blend. South Indians are apparently the only people in the world who roast lentils and use them as seasonings, either whole, as in this green bean dish, or ground as in this eggplant curry and tomato and lentil stew. Roasted lentils lend a nutty and almost sweet flavor to dishes, and the result is unlike any other seasoning I've ever had.

I followed this recipe almost exactly as written in order to be able to properly review and critique it. On the whole, I would give it a rating of 6 out of 10. I like the combination of chickpeas and spinach, and I’m a fan of using South Indian spices in dishes, but there was a striking lack of cohesion in this dish both texturally and flavor-wise. I wouldn’t specifically make this again unless I made the following changes:
  • Reduce the amount of mustard seeds from 1 tsp to 1/2 tsp - the flavor of popped mustard seeds overwhelmed the dish.
  • Omit the ginger and fried onion/shallot – onions, shallots, garlic, and other allium members are never used in South Indian cooking; ginger is rarely used, and, if so, never with sambar powder and popped mustard seeds (my mother’s jaw dropped when I told her that the recipe called for mustard seeds and sambar powder AND onions and ginger). I couldn't distinctly taste the ginger and shallots, but I would omit them nonetheless.
  • Reduce the amount of water from 2 cups to 1 cup and increase the simmering time to at least 20 minutes (from 8-10) - the final product was really watery and not at all cohesive in terms of texture or flavor. Reducing the amount of water by ½ and increasing the cooking time would allow for more of the water to get absorbed by the chick peas, for the chick peas to give off some of their starch and thereby thicken the sauce, and for all the flavors to blend together.
I might also use frozen spinach instead of fresh, because the delicate fresh spinach flavor was totally drowned out by the seasonings.

That being said, I think this would be a great weeknight dinner - it's quick, easy to make, inexpensive, healthy, and, with the aforementioned changes, probably really tasty.


Chana Saag (Spiced Chickpeas and Spinach)
(serves 4)

2 tablespoons ghee (clarified butter) or canola oil
1 teaspoon black or yellow mustard seeds
1 tablespoon ginger paste
2 tablespoons fried onion paste (I used 2 tablespoons finely minced shallots)
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 teaspoons sambar powder
2 teaspoons kosher or sea salt
2 cups cooked chickpeas (I used a 15-ounce can)
2 cups water
1 pound fresh spinach leaves, well rinsed and finely chopped


Heat the ghee in a medium-sized saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the mustard seeds, cover the pot, and cook until the seeds have stopped popping, about 30 seconds. Lower the heat to medium and add the ginger paste. Stir-fry until light brown, about 30 seconds. (Be careful with this step – the ghee will be very hot and the ginger will very likely splatter – I kept any splattering ghee and ginger out of my face by covering the pot and then pulling up the lid a bit to leave it ajar, then sticking a long wooden spoon into the pot to stir the ginger.)

Stir in the fried onion paste, tomato paste, sambar powder, salt, and chickpeas. Stir well to coat the chickpeas, then add the water. Bring the mixture to a boil.

Add the spinach and stir well to incorporate. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, covered, until the mixture has thickened, about 8-10 minutes.

Serve with rice.


Laura said...

Ooh! I've been reading your blog for a couple months now, and am quite excited to try this one! My favorite curry recipe right now is with chickpeas - with cauliflower and potatoes (from Joy of Cooking), seems simple but oh so scrumptious. Thanks for sharing! (larobertson2 at yahoo dot com)

Anonymous said...

Well, I'm glad you are testing these recipes, and not me. I love spinach, but I think I will pass on this one. The basic idea sounds good though.

kristen said...

i love 99% of what you make - this one isnt so appealing to me though.

go back to making up your own ORIGINAL RECIPES, please!

oh yeah, and i think fairway sells sambar. cause i think i saw it and wondered what it was... ha!

malini said...

Instead of mustard seeds, i would use cumin seeds. Instead of sambar powder I would use cumin powder, coriandr powder and a little garam masala powder, to make it all a cohesive north Indian dish. Some of the spices kind of clash in this recipe from "660 Curries"

Kathy aka the Minx said...

If alliums are not used in South Indian cooking, do they use asafoetida instead? I can't imagine food without garlic and onions!

Chickpeas make me really sick, so I'm not likely to try this recipe at all.

roopa said...

Laura - Thanks for leaving a comment!

Anon - I agree, this isn't the greatest recipe. I'm glad I didn't come up with it :)

Kristen - I will go back to posting 100% OG tomorrow. Don't worry :) Get the sambar from Fairway and let me know how it is.

Mom - Ginger + sambar powder + mustard seeds = wrong. I know this from eating your food my whole life :)

Kathy - We do use asafetida, lots of it!

Natalie said...

I am so excited about recipes being shown for this cookbook. I can not wait for some more to be posted soon!

VCK said...

I am making curry tonight! It is pretty much nothing like this one, though. I got it from a recipe from Every Day with Rachael Ray and it's made with coconut milk and a lot of spices, including garam masala, which I finally bought. I'm going to deviate from the recipe (as usual) by subbing tofu for the chicken and adding some chile-spiced mango. I'm going to serve it over brown rice (I have no idea if this is Indian at all, but don't really care) with naan and mango chutney.
I'm getting hungry!

haleysuzanne said...

This sounds interesting, and I think it would be excellent either with your changes to make it a true South Indian dish or by tweaking it into more of a chana masala (a personal favorite at a now-defunct Indian restaurant here in Athens). Love the review and am looking forward to more!

Tamara said...

Roopa--I found out about your blog from the Bittman article, and I've been a lurker for a few weeks--your recipes look fantastic. I'm moving to Baltimore in September and reading about your visits to the farmer's markets has been exciting! My family is Indian and I'm always experimenting with different curries (just made a fantastic vindaloo!--which I know isn't really relevant to this website). To expand on my mother's culinary wisdom, I've been looking for a good Indian cookbook--do you have any favorites (aside from the one you're giving away?)Thanks for the great recipes and the Baltimore inspiration!

kolwave said...

Guess I haven't figured out how to post a comment yet (apologies if this mysteriously appears twice).

Scene - High school trip to France
Task - Cook dinner for host family
Good thing le supermarche had "l'epice indienne" (99% tumeric)!

So I'm extra excited that the book will detail regional spice mixtures! Hopefully it will help dispel the myth of curry powder ...

I was wondering if you'd heard the (Vaishnava ? Bengali?) rule that you're not supposed to use onion AND garlic AND ginger. My mom will use only 2 of those 3. I break the rule (so do millions of people) but the problem is that she refuses to eat anything I've cooked if I've (gasp) used all three. Would enjoy using your authority to say neener neener.

I'm non-veg, but started reading after the mention in the NYT. In general, too advanced for my abilities (yeah, sad), but I like your experimental ways and will def'ly refer to the veg Indian dishes again.


Rahul said...

Roopa, I found your blog from Bittman's Times article, and really love it! Not just the recipes, but the descriptions and photos of the food, as well as the layout of the blog!

My email address is hsrahul at yahoo
dot com.

wannatakethisoutside said...

I love sambar powder. It is such a delicious change from my usual obsession with hot peppers drowning out every other spice.

Since you mentioned things that don't go with sambar powder, I have heard that some places, tomato also can't be used because of its red color. Does your mom find that combination to be just as problematic?

DC Foodie said...

I actually make an Italian version of this that includes lots of fresh cilantro and fresh Italian parsley (1/4-1/2c each). Chop it up and toss it at the end. Cook for five minutes. You won't believe how much that brightens up the flavor of the spinach.

Chef Erik said...

Very nice. My sous chef makes a dish like this but it never looks this good. I'm just starting to get good with this style of cooking. I'll have to try this at work. I knew subscribing to your blog would be a great idea. So far I tried 2 of your recipes and they were super. You should submit this one to my Veg Head carnival, details are in my sidebar. It would definatly be one of the top recipes on the list. Best wishes.

I Heart Kale said...

Hi Roopa,

For readers without access to Indian groceries, both of our go-to Indian cookbooks, Mangoes and Curry Leaves and Madhur Jaffrey's World Vegetarian, have recipes for making your own sambhar powder and there are probably plenty of sambhar powder recipes floating around the web too. The fenugreek seeds might be a little difficult to find, but probably easier to source than sambhar powder?

My email is hannahbetesh at yahoo dot com.

roopa said...

Natalie - There are more coming in the following weeks. Also, if you want to be entered into the drawing, please send me an email so that I have your address.

VCK - Hey, as long as it tastes good, who cares if it's not authentic Indian?!

haleysuzanne - I think this dish could go either way, but I think it would definitely work better as a North Indian dish (as my mom suggested, and I trust her when it comes to Indian cooking :)

Tamara - I really like Madhur Jaffrey's books (although I find her World Vegetarian a little boring), and I also like Suvir Saran's books (I love his restaurant Devi)

Kolwave - I've never heard of that rule, probably because my mom cooks mostly South Indian so she rarely uses onions or garlic. And I am definitely not a voice of authority! :)

Rahul & Erik - Thanks!

wannatakethisoutside - I've never heard anything like that about tomatoes! Now I'm curious.

DC Foodie - I've never added cilantro to spinach. Sounds interesting!

Hannah - This book includes a recipe for sambar powder, as do many other Indian cookbooks. A number of the ingredients required to make it - particularly chana and urad dal - are very difficult to find anywhere but at an Indian grocery store, so I figure that if you're going to go to an Indian grocery, you may as well buy the pre-made stuff. Also, making sambar powder is a painful process - the roasting and grinding of chilis induces painful coughing fits and burning eyes - something I'd rather not have to go through! Even my mom doesn't make it anymore because it's just too much of a pain to do so!

Amicus Cupcake said...

I love Indian food, but I'm afraid to cook it. I've tried only a few times, and always with mixed results. Some of my favorite Indian dishes involve spinach too, namely Palak Paneer

Rahul said...

onions, shallots, garlic, and other allium members are never used in South Indian cooking; ginger is rarely used, and, if so, never with sambar powder and popped mustard seeds

That's not entirely true. Onion sambar is fairly popular even among Tambrams, and garlic rasam is considered a cold remedy by some South Indians.

However, orthodox Tamil Brahmins do not usually consume onions, and in an extreme case, tomatoes because they are "overseas" vegetables. At least, this is my understanding of things.

Sherri Cohen said...

Long time reader, first time commenter. As I became more committed to cooking my own vegetarian/vegan food, the first few dishes I prepared were Indian (or I guess I should say Indian-based, because I'm sure they weren't 100% authentic.

As I continue to learn more about cooking and cuisines of various ethnicities, I'm always fascinated to hear about particular culinary rules. Can anyone explain the whole "only 2 out of 3" for the ginger/garlic/onion thing? Is it flavor-related, or is it deeper than that? Also, Kolwave, I'm shocked that your mother won't eat your food because it breaks some traditional rules. She sounds like quite a stalwart.

As for favorite Indian recipes...well, I've had the most success with a Spicy Chickpeas recipe from a vegetarian recipe compilation. Yes, the name was just "Spicy Chickpeas." I'm guessing it's most equivalent to Channa Masala, but it only remotely resembles it. I loved going to the Indian grocery to buy new ingredients--I think I spent 45 mins. just wandering around. The recipe used tamarind concentrate, which gave the chickpeas a sweet-and-sour flavor. Huge hit at a potluck with a lot of carnivores.

E-mail is sherrismooth at gmail dot com.

Jon said...

Like everyone else, it seems, I found your blog from Bittman's mentioning it. I loved the simple vegetable recipes you've posted (cabbage and green beans) and would love to see more of those.

If you take requests: I'd be very interested if you ever make things like dosas. Whenever I've tried them from cookbooks (Madhur Jaffrey, Yamuna Devi) they've been a bit oily and leaden. Or do Indians not actually cook dosas at home?

Jon said...

Hmm. I put the address of my webpage as my identity, but it didn't seem to like that. My address is
othmer at acm dot caltech dot edu

Mary said...

Namaste - What a pleasure to find your blog, Roopa, who gives limitless form to vegetarian cooking. Do you also have bakery items without egg? "Dwija" -

Anonymous said...

the onion comment is not true. I'm south indian through and through and often use onion; all my family does. are you sure your comment is not caste-specific?

Pink Thumb said...

Mmm I learned a lot of recipes from my ex's mom. My favorite was a chickpea, tomato, saffron "curry" with saffron basmati rice.

surgeon mama said...

I LOVE chana saag. I make it all the time, with whatever greens I have around. I always use ginger, garlic, onions, and asafoetida, but I caramelize the onions so they add to the sweetness of the dish. I don't add mustard seeds, and I have never really used sambar. I'm excited to try it.

I often add homemade paneer to indian dishes-it's the best thing to do with milk that's about to go ( I don't use much milk, so when it's reaching it's expiration date, I make it into paneer)

Thanks for this review! I think that for many chana dishes, the sweetness is what really sells it-both with the caramelized onions and sometimes a small amount of sugar or maple syrup. Not traditional, but I prefer maple syrup or agave nectar to sugar generally.

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