Cheap Eats:
Chole, Saag, & Garam Masala

What’s the difference between currying your horse and currying your lamb? Well, the first curry comes from the Middle English word currayen, and means to prepare, to clean the coat of a horse. The second one comes from the Tamil word kari, and it is a word the British picked up in Ceylon and then used to describe every spice mixture they encountered in India. Indians, however, don’t call their spices curries, and the majority of Indian food doesn’t taste anything like what we associate with the word "curry."

The spice combinations used in India vary from region to region, and even from recipe to recipe, with spices added individually, based on the desired results. Once an Indian cook hits on a favorite basic combination, however, it is not uncommon for him or her to produce it in a fairly large quantity. These "all purpose" combinations are called garam masala—mixed ground spice.

The majority of these masalas, or mixtures, contain black pepper, cumin, cardamom, cinnamon and cloves, plus one or more of the following: coriander, nutmeg, mace. Below is my version, but you can vary it to your own tastes. It makes a lot, but it lasts for months, if not years—or you can adjust the quantities downward (good math exercise). You’ll need the garam masala for the Chole recipe.

Saag and Chole are luxuriously spicy dishes, but not really hot, unless you choose to make them so. Neither tastes even remotely like curry.

Garam Masala

1 Tbs. ground black pepper

1 Tbs. ground cumin

1 tsp. ground cinnamon

1 tsp. nutmeg

2 tsp. ground cardamom

1 Tbs. ground coriander seeds

1 tsp. ground cloves

Mix thoroughly. Place in a glass container. Store in a cool, dry place.


1 large baking potato

3 medium onions

¾-inch piece ginger

6 cloves garlic

4 Tbs. vegetable oil

1 tsp. ground cumin

1 bay leaf

1 tsp. ground cinnamon

2 medium tomatoes, chopped

½ tsp. ground coriander seeds

½ tsp. ground turmeric

1 tsp. salt, or to taste

¼ tsp. cayenne pepper, or to taste

2 15½ oz. cans chick peas, drained

½ tsp. garam masala

1 Tbs. lemon juice

Scrub potato and chop into pieces roughly the size of chick peas. Put potato in saucepan and cover with water. Bring to the boil, boil two minutes, then cover and remove from heat. Set aside until needed.

Chop onions coarsely. Grate* ginger and garlic. In a large skillet, heat oil over medium heat. Add the cumin, bay leaf and cinnamon. When the spices darken (1 to 2 seconds), add the grated ginger and garlic. Cook for 1 minute, then add the chopped onions and sauté until golden brown (12 to 15 minutes). Add the chopped tomatoes, coriander, turmeric, salt and cayenne. Cook until the tomatoes begin to get soft (about 5 minutes). Drain potato and add to pan. Add the chickpeas and stir. Cover, reduce heat to low, and cook for 10 minutes. Mix in garam masala and lemon juice. Serve hot.

Serves 6.

*If you enjoy preparing Asian cuisine, a ginger grater is a worthwhile investment. They are smaller and easier to manage than regular food graters, and if you get a porcelain grater, you don’t have to worry as much about losing fingernails or the tips of fingers.


1 medium onion, chopped finely

1 Tbs. vegetable oil

2 10 oz. packages frozen spinach (or other greens—mustard or turnip greens are nice, too, or any combination)

⅓ cup water

1-inch piece ginger, grated

⅛ tsp. cayenne pepper

½ tsp. salt

1 Tbs. lemon juice

In a 2 qt. saucepan, sauté the onions in oil over medium heat until limp and transparent. Add water and bring to boil. Add frozen spinach and return to boil, stirring, or turning frozen spinach occasionally. Reduce heat to medium. Add cayenne, ginger and salt, then cover. Boil covered for 10 to 12 minutes, or until thoroughly cooked, stirring well half way through cooking time. When done, stir in lemon juice and serve.

Serves 6.


If you want to serve this meal with rice, use basmati rice, and cook it with a stick of cinnamon, a bay leaf, and a half cup of peas. An Indian meal would also generally include a "pickle" of some sort, and these can be made at home, but they take a huge amount of work, and from weeks to months to mature, so I recommend buying bottled chutney or some pickled vegetables at an Asian market.

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