An Alchemy of Spices: Chana Masala, Vegetable Pulao, and Raitha

I love Indian food but I can never get the courage to cook it at home. It seems too complicated and intimidating with the plethora of spices, mixing them, and techniques to bring out their aromatics.

There are a total of 40 spices used in Indian cuisine, 24 of which are essential in daily cooking and common recipes across India!

Every Indian household has a spice kit called masala dabba. Masala means "spice mixture" and dabba means "box", hence "Mixed Spice Box". A Masala dabba is a huge tin container full of smaller containers filled with whole and ground spices. They always have it armed and ready to perform their spice alchemy magic. Each cook composes their own spice blend where the mixing and blending of spices is an art unto itself.

The conjuring of aromatics is also a science. There are three main techniques. Whole spices can be dry-roasted then ground. Dry-roasting a whole spice removes excess moisture which makes it easier to grind. Dry-roasting can also change the flavor. Take coriander seeds form example. The flavor of coriander seed in its raw form is lemony and floral. When it is dry-roasted, it takes on grassy and earthy notes.

Then there are ground spices which are more fragile and can easily burn. They are roasted in a dry frying pan until they release their volatile aromatics which only takes a few seconds. Another technique is you can fry the spices in oil or ghee (clarified butter) which is called tadka. Frying spices in oil adds another layer of flavor and it is what you see on top of the lentil dish dal tadka. Whatever technique is used, spices can be ground into a paste (wet) or dry masalas.

This week I decided enough was enough, I wanted to take the plunge. The only way to get over my fear was to just cook!

I thought Chana Masala, Vegetable Pulao rice and Raitha would be a great start for a beginner like me. Although when I saw that I would be dealing with 11 different spices, I almost ran out of the kitchen in horror. I'm so glad I didn't because now I am confident I can cook Indian food and my dinner was just as good as my local Indian takeout.

The only unusual spices you probably wouldn't have in your cabinet would be Amchur powder which is dried mango powder, cardamom pods, and cumin seeds. I was able to get these at my local Indian grocery but you can order them off Amazon. The other spices can be found at your regular supermarket.

Chana Masala is a chickpea stew in a spicy tomato sauce. Vegetable pulao is India's version of a rice pilaf, fragrant long grain basmati rice with aromatics of cloves and cardamom. Raitha is a refreshing condiment that takes the edge off the heat made of yogurt, cucumbers, cilantro mint, coriander and cumin.

If this is your first foray into Indian cuisine, here are a few beginner pro-tips:

(1) Set your mise en place. Measure out everything and have it ready in sequential order for cooking. There are a lot of components to Indian cooking. It is easy to get overwhelmed and confused what comes next. Over preparation will do you favors.

(2) Prep the rice first. Always wash basmati rice until the water runs clear. I wash mine at

least 5 times and soak the rice for 20 minutes. This way you get fluffy rice with separate grains just like you get at the Indian restaurant. When cooking the rice, set

your heat to a low simmer so your rice doesn't burn on the bottom.

(3) Remember you can always adjust the seasoning according to taste and preference. If you prefer less heat use less spice. If you prefer more heat, use more.

Those are all the tips to get you going. Now you can start cooking your Indian meal!


For Vegetable Pulao:

Ghee (1 tsp)

Yellow onion finely diced (1/2 of onion)

Frozen vegetable mix of carrots, peas, corn, green beans (1/2 cup)

Cumin seeds (1/2 tsp)

Cardamom (6 pods)

Cloves (6 whole)

Turmeric (2 tsp)

Bay leaves (2)

Basmati rice (1.5 cups)

Chicken, vegetable broth, or wather (2.5 cups)

  1. Wash rice until water runs clear (about 5 times) and let soak for 20 minutes.

  2. Over medium high heat, pour ghee into large saucepan.

  3. Sautee onions until translucent 2-3 minutes.

  4. Add spices and bay leaves. Sautee for 15 seconds.

  5. Drain rice and add to saucepan. Sautee for 3 minutes until spice is evenly distributed through the rice.

  6. Pour in boiling hot chicken, vegetable broth or water. Give it a good stir.

  7. Let it boil for a few seconds.

  8. Cover for 20 minutes until cooked on medium low heat.

  9. Turn off heat and leave cover on for 10 minutes.

  10. Fluff rice with fork and serve with main entree.


For Chana masala:

Ghee (2 tbs)

Yellow Onion diced (1 large)

Garlic minced (4 cloves)

Ginger (1 tsp)

Dried whole dried chili (4, adjust to taste)

Cardamom pods (2)

Cloves whole (2)

Cinnamon stick (1)

Bay leaves (2)

Amchur powder (1 tsp)

Coriander ground (1 tsp)

Cayenne ground (1/4 tsp adjust to taste)

Garam masala (1/2 tsp)

Turmeric (1/4 tsp)

Black pepper freshly ground (to taste)

Kosher salt (1.5 tsp or to taste)

Chickpeas canned, drained and rinsed (28 oz)

Passata or tomato puree (28 oz)

For garnish:

Diced yellow onion


  1. Over medium high heat, sautee onion until translucent 2-3 minutes

  2. Add ginger and garlic and sautee garlic until fragrant.

  3. Add whole spices and sautee for 1- 2 minutes

  4. Add ground spices and sautee for 15 seconds or until fragrant.

  5. Add chickpeas and stir until spices are evenly distributed.

  6. Season with salt and pepper.

  7. Add passata or tomato puree and stir until chickpeas and spices are distributed throughout the sauce.

  8. Turn heat down to medium low, cover and simmer for 25 - 30 minutes until flavors meld. Stir occasionally.

  9. Serve with rice and raitha (optional).

  10. Garnish with cilantro and diced yellow onion.


For raitha:

Yogurt plain (1 cup)

Shallot diced (1 whole)

Cucumbers diced small (1/2 cup)

Cilantro minced (1 tbs)

Mint leaves minces (1.5 tsp)

Cumin powdered (1/4 to `1/2 tsp)

Coriander powdered (1/4 to 1/2 tsp)

Kosher salt (1/8 tsp or to taste)

  1. Add yogurt and salt to a bowl whisk until smooth.

  2. Add cumin and coriander and whisk until mixed well.

  3. Mix in shallots and cucumbers.

  4. Mix in cilantro and mint leaves.

  5. Serve a spoonful over main entree and rice.

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