The Art of Indian Cooking

Masaledar Cholay

Two questions before I begin: First, do you like Indian food? Is it possible that you even love Indian food? If so, keep reading.

Next question: Are you sitting? Good. Because I’m about to share with you THE BEST Indian recipe ever. I know that’s a bold claim to make, but trust me on this. This is a dish you want to make.

Cooking tasty Indian food at home was a skill that had long eluded me. When I started taking food seriously, while I was working on my PhD, my goal was to learn how to make things that were as good, or better, than what I could get in a restaurant. It’s not that I was (or am) anti-restaurant–who doesn’t like it when other people prepare your food every now and then?–but as a graduate student living on a tight budget, I wanted to eat well without depriving myself or becoming homeless. So, I learned how to cook. With the help of experts in print and on the Internet, I’ve managed to navigate my way through many of the world’s cuisines, making complex, exotic and delicious food and, gradually, adding things to my ever-growing List of Things I Never Have to Pay For Again. But Indian food, along with sushi, remained stubbornly on the List of Things I Still Can’t Make At Home for much longer than I wanted it to.

The big problem, I realized after a while, was that the Indian cookbook I’d been using had really poor instructions. It would say things like “cook the onions until brown” without telling the me at what temperature to cook the onions or exactly how long it would take for them to get brown. This book had me overcooking lentils, using the wrong sized pots and pans, making more mistakes than I care to remember, and the food I ended up making was always, well, gross. So, I resigned myself to leaving it to the experts. Indian food was my Everest and there was nothing to be done about it… that is, until Sanjeev Kapoor came into my life.

When I first saw How to Cook Indian in a used bookstore last year, I’ll admit that I was skeptical. It’s a huge volume without a single picture to refer to, and I wasn’t convinced that this would be the thing to get me back to trying Indian cooking again. Then, I started reading the instructions and it became crystal clear that what I had in my hands was an absolute gem. This book is packed with useful information about equipment and pantry staples common to Indian cuisine, and the chapters are organized by course and by ingredient in a way that seems totally logical to me. But the real reason to buy this book is the recipes themselves. The ingredients are listed in the order you cook them in, making it easy to check back to see if you’ve gotten everything, and the cooking instructions  are clear, detailed and easy to follow.

And, did I mention that the recipes are delicious? Because they are. The first time I cooked from this book, Keith actually exclaimed (exclaimed!), “Oh my god, when did you learn to cook Indian!?” As I explained to him, the book is well written and the recipes are really easy to cook. Case in point: masaledar chholay. Lest you think this is your bog-standard chana masala, I urge you to think again. You might be tempted to dismiss this recipe as being too fussy, with too many ingredients and a lethal dose of garlic, but I can assure that it’s as easy as grinding a few things up and tossing everything together in a hot pan. It all starts with an aromatic paste of fresh ginger, many cloves of garlic and a couple of spicy chilis, panfried with deeply caramelized onions until the heady fragrance fills the kitchen. Lightly toasted and freshly ground spices are then added to the mix, followed by a heaping pile of fresh tomatoes, cooked chickpeas and some water, which reduces down to create a delicious gravy that demands to be soaked up with steamed rice or some naan.

This is not a dish that requires advanced preparation, good knife skills, or even very much patience. It really is dead simple to make, and it’s so good that you’ll never buy that boxed chana masala spice mix ever again. Even though I still don’t know how to make good sushi, it’s comforting to know that I can now add Indian food to the List of Things I Never Have to Pay For Again.

Masaledar Chholay, from Sanjeev Kapoor’s How to Cook Indian 

Serves 4

A 2-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled

8-10 cloves of garlic

2 green chilis, stemmed

2 Tbsp cumin seeds

6 Tbsp vegetable or other neutral tasting oil

3 large red onions, peeled and chopped (I used yellow onions)

1 Tbsp ground coriander seeds

1 tsp red chili powder

1 Tbsp dried pomegranate powder (optional)

4 medium tomatoes, roughly chopped

1.5 tsp salt, plus more to taste

560 g/2.5 cups cooked chickpeas (canned is fine)

2 Tbsp chopped fresh cilantro


1. Grind the ginger, garlic and chilis in a blender to form a paste. Set aside.

2. In a non-stick skillet over medium heat, dry roast the cumin seeds until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Grind into a powder with a spice grinder or mortar and pestle. Set aside.

3. Place a large non-stick saucepan or skillet with high walls over medium heat and add the oil. When the oil is hot, add the onions and sauté until deeply browned but not burned. This could take as few as 5 minutes if your onions are on the drier side, but wetter onions will need at least 10 and up to 20 minutes to brown.

4. When the onions are browned, add the ginger-garlic-chili paste, stir well and sauté for 2 minutes. Then, add the dry spices, stir, and cook for another 1 or 2 minutes.

5. Next, add the chopped tomatoes and 1.5 tsp salt, and stir. Cook until the tomatoes slump and the oil rises to the top of the mix, about 8 minutes (I initially thought this was a weird instruction, but the oil really does rise to the top!).

6. Add the chickpeas, stir and cook for about 5 minutes. Then, add 3 cups of water and simmer for 10-15 minutes, or until the sauce is somewhat thick.

7. Season to taste, serve over steamed rice and garnish with chopped cilantro.


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