Making a proper, involved, Indian curry sometimes makes me feel a little bit like a witch. Into a bubbling cauldron (okay, a Le Creuset casserole), I chop, sprinkle and throw a vast array of ingredients, whose individual fragrances, flavours and perfumes mingle magically and alchemically into a heady and potent end result. Although it can be quite tedious and time-consuming to rifle my spice cupboards (yes, I have three - no that shouldn't surprise you if you know me or read this blog regularly) for all the different ingredients required, to extract them from their various jars/sellotaped-down packets/tupperware boxes and to toast, grind and dice them as necessary, I love the way they all contribute their own unique qualities to the final dish.
While I often use maybe two or three herbs and spices at most in a single recipe, there are times that call for more than that. To spoon them from their jars is a pleasure; I can appreciate the vivid marigold of turmeric, the shocking vibrance of scarlet paprika, the delicate shape of a floral star anise or furled cinnamon stick, the wrinkled citrus perfume of a jade cardamom pod, the deep warmth of cumin, the pungent earthy aroma of ground coriander...I could go on. I love the way the aromas emanating from the pan shift with every addition, becoming slightly more earthy, or slightly sweeter, or a little bit more astringent (particularly when you throw in a bit of feisty cayenne pepper).
The main reason for making this curry was a little packet of mango powder, a recent acquisition from the excellent JustIngredients. I've never cooked with it before but I am a total fiend for mangoes, so it made sense to add another manifestation of this exquisite fruit to my culinary repertoire. Mango powder is made from green, unripe mangoes, so it possesses a wonderful tartness, and is often used for this reason in curries and stews, perhaps where you might otherwise use tamarind or lime juice. I'm keen to try it out soon in a marinade for chicken, but first had the idea for this curry.
Although I do love a good meat-based curry, particularly involving slow-cooked red meat like lamb or beef that braises down into melting, spicy tenderness, I try not to eat too much meat. Chickpeas are a lovely substitute in curries, because they possess a good substantial texture and are also an excellent vehicle for carrying the fragrant sauce. I love the texture of an earthy chickpea against a mound of fragrant rice - it's that slightly sinful yet delicious marriage of carbs with carbs.
This curry uses a lot of spices. They mingle together during the cooking time (another bonus - much quicker than a meat-based curry) to result in a gorgeous fragrant sauce, sweet with cinnamon, hot with cayenne pepper, earthy with cumin, coriander and turmeric, zingy with cardamom, and slightly sour from the mango powder. The base of the sauce is chopped tomatoes and a little brown sugar, which turns dark and rich and sweet/sour, laced with tender strips of softened onion. I love the tang that the mango powder brings to the whole dish - it makes it incredibly moreish.
Into this aromatic sauce go tinned chickpeas (I never cook them from scratch because the tinned ones are perfectly good - just make sure you get a good Asian/Middle-Eastern brand rather than the supermarket own brand) and a load of spinach, which wilts down amongst the chickpeas and thickens the sauce. It also contributes the 'something green' that must be a component of every meal I cook - it's become a bit of a compulsion.
To continue the mango theme, I decided to add some cubed fresh mango to the curry at the end of cooking. This was, if I say so myself, a great idea. Because the sauce is so earthy and has that kick of sourness from the mango powder, and the chickpeas are quite starchy and neutral-tasting, the fruity mango contributes a delicious fresh, sweet flavour and a lovely texture that works so well with all the other elements. Add to that a sprinkle of fresh coriander, and you have a perfect marriage.
Although this has a long list of spices involved, it's an incredibly easy curry to make and takes very little actual cooking time. I know a lot of people are put off by the idea of vegetarian curries, as they never quite manage to live up to the richness of meat-based varieties, but this I think is one of the best I've ever made or had. It's comforting and warming yet healthy and fruity at the same time, and a real pleasure both to look at and to eat.
The sauce is also a good base for adapting - I think some cubed aubergines cooked along with the chickpeas would be excellent, softening into slippery deliciousness. You could add strips of chicken if you really can't live without the meat. Pomegranate seeds scattered over the top as well as or instead of the fresh mango would be excellent (I wanted to try this, but didn't have any pomegranates), or maybe some dried apricots added to the sauce along with the chickpeas. Try this mango version first, though, because it's great.
I'd also like to clarify that I don't stand by my hob chanting 'hubble bubble' while making these sorts of things...but once you've made this, you might understand my strange notions of cooking with spices as being magical.
Chickpea, spinach and mango curry (serves 4):
- 1 tbsp olive/rapeseed oil
- 2 onions, thinly sliced
- 1 tsp
- ground cumin
- 4 cardamom pods
- 2 cinnamon sticks
- 4 tomatoes, finely diced
- 1 1/2 tsp salt
- 3 tbsp mango powder
- 3 tsp ground coriander
- 1 tsp garam masala
- 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
- 1/2 tsp turmeric
- 1 tsp brown sugar
- 2 x 400g cans chickpeas
- 500ml water
- Two large handfuls fresh coriander, finely chopped
- 4 large handfuls spinach
- 2 ripe mangoes, cut into 2cm cubes
Heat the oil in a large casserole dish and saute the onion until softened and golden. Add the cumin, cardamom pods and cinnamon sticks and cook for a minute or so until fragrant. Add the tomatoes, salt, mango powder, coriander, garam masala, cayenne, turmeric and sugar. Partially cover the pan with a lid and cook for 5-10 minutes on a low heat until the tomatoes have softened and thickened.
Add the chickpeas, water, and half the coriander and cook, covered, for 20-25 minutes until the sauce has thickened. If it's too runny, cook uncovered for a few minutes more. Add the spinach and cook for a minute or so until it wilts into the sauce. Stir in the mango, and serve immediately, with steamed rice, sprinkled with the remaining coriander.