Our Lowcountry family vacationed in the North Carolina mountains near Asheville last summer. Asheville is a funky and cool city with a kind of crunchy vibe. The Boy experienced his first drum circle (I may have done a little Dead Head spinning while walking up the sidewalk to Pritchard Park), we saw lots and lots of dreadlocks, Birkenstocks and Tevas, and we got to eat fabulous Indian food (most of it vegetarian). There were many restaurants to choose from but we decided on Chai Pani because I’d heard great things from friends who have visited the Decatur, Georgia location. Everyone raves about it for good reason. It was absolutely amazing. Even the very carnivorous Chef J said, “If I could eat like this every day, I might consider being a vegetarian.” (If you go, I highly recommend the non-vegetarian Bombay Chili Cheese Fries. We still talk about those.)
A lot of people seem intimidated or scared to try Indian food but it’s so amazing. There are so many complex ingredients going on that the flavors just explode. Sadly, we have nothing like Chai Pani here. There are no Indian restaurants near our home. And I’ve heard that the ones in nearby Savannah are just so-so (I know, I know, I just need to get over there to check them out myself). There is a booth at our local farmer’s market that sells phenomenal Indian food but I’m not able to make it there very often. There is one restaurant on “the island” that does curry night once a week. So generally, that means that if I want Indian food, it’s coming out of my kitchen.
Many Indian spices are common in American kitchens but some things are a little harder to find. Sometimes you can find curry blends and spices at places like World Market but if you can find an Indian grocery, that’ll be much better. And you will find that the spices there are VERY affordable. My 1 pound bag of cumin seeds was $4.99. Seriously, if you buy a 4 ounce jar of cumin seeds at the regular supermarket it costs that much or more. You may be able to find an Indian market near you by visiting Videsh.com.
I love to make a big Indian feast with samosas (potato dumplings), a dal (a lentil stew), a vegetarian curry or two, maybe a chicken dish for the carnivores and a big pot of basmati rice. When I do this, I almost always make chole palak, which is my very favorite. If you start following Indian food websites, you will begin to understand some of the terms. Chole is chickpeas and palak is spinach. The two ingredients are stewed together in a spicy tomato chile sauce and is one of the best things you will ever eat.
On the night I made this, the Chole Palak was our whole meal. Both my boys, the carnivore and the omnivore, devoured it. This recipe serves about four people as a main dish. If you are serving more than that, it is easily doubled.
Chole Palak (Chickpea and Spinach Stew)
- 1 15oz can of chickpeas, drained (chole)
- 4-5 cups chopped spinach (palak)
- 2 very large tomatoes, cored and chopped
- 1″ piece ginger, peeled and chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, chopped
- 1 green chile (thai, serrano or jalapeno), stemmed, seeded and rough chopped (leave the seeds if you like it spicy)
- 3 T oil
- 1/4 t asafetida (hing)
- 1 t cumin seeds
- 1 t coriander powder
- 1/2 t turmeric
- 1/4 t cayenne pepper, less if you don’t like spicy
- 1 t garam masala
- salt, to taste
- Lemon wedges, optional
Combine tomatoes, ginger, garlic, and chile in blender and puree (or use an immersion blender) until pretty smooth.
In large stock pot, heat oil over medium high heat. Add one cumin seed. When it pops and sizzles add remaining cumin seeds, asafetida, coriander, turmeric, cayenne pepper, and garam masala. Saute for a minute or so until spices become very fragrant. Add tomato mixture all at once (It’s going to spatter like crazy! Be careful!) and simmer until reduced by about half, about 5 to 10 minutes. Add chickpeas and heat for a few minutes. Stir in spinach and cover briefly. Cook until just wilted. If too thick, add a little water until it’s the desired consistency. Taste and add salt if needed.
Serve chole palak with basmati rice and warm buttered naan. If you like, add a lemon wedge to the plate. A little squeeze of lemon really brightens up the dish.
A very favorite source for many of my vegetarian Indian recipes is Manjula’s Kitchen. If you ever just get the urge to try something different, check her out or at least use her site to verify whatever recipe you are using. She’s amazing!