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.
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)
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.