Saag, Chole, and Garam Masala

Here are two dish that illustrate the point made in the previous post that many Indian foods don’t taste at all like what many countries define as “curry.” It also illustrates that “spicy” does not always mean the same as “hot.” (Spanish has the advantage of separate words for hot spicy—piquante— and hot temperature—caliente. In English, not having a history of sizzling cuisine, we have to make do with the words we have—spicy and hot—both of which mean more than one thing.) Saag and Chole (also sometimes spelled Chhole) are luxuriously spicy dishes, but not really hot, unless you choose to make them so. Neither tastes even remotely like curry.

Masala means “spice blend” and garam means “hot.” Most general garam masala 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, especially if refrigerated—or you can adjust the quantities downward (good math exercise). You can also pick up packaged garam masala at an Indian grocery store, and at many international grocery stores, if you have one near where you live. You’ll need the garam masala for the chole recipe.

The word saag means, basically, tender green leaves. In India, this would most likely be spinach, mustard greens, or methi (fenugreek leaves). I sometimes use turnip greens or a blend of spinach and other greens when I make this recipe, for variety. Chole means “chick peas.” Though you will see these terms used in a wide range of recipes, the two recipes below are among the most common for these two, popular ingredients. Enjoy.

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
3/4-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
1/2 tsp. ground coriander seeds
1/2 tsp. ground turmeric
1 tsp. salt, or to taste
1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper, or to taste
2 15-1/2 oz. cans chick peas, drained
1/2 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, finely chopped
1 Tbs. vegetable oil
2 10 oz. packages frozen spinach (or other greens)
1/3 cup water
1-inch piece ginger, grated
1/8 tsp. cayenne pepper
1/2 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.

Note: 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.

© 2008 Cynthia Clampitt

1 Comment

Filed under Food, Recipes

One response to “Saag, Chole, and Garam Masala


    Love this chole recipe! Easy and tasty–thank you!

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