Spice Rack: Rajma Masala (Kidney Bean Curry)

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Greetings spice dabblers. This month I’m delving into the unknown with a less commonly used spice - the black cardamom. Bolshy in flavour yet amicable when used in harmony with other spices, it’s the lesser known big brother to green cardamon which you might have used already.

Unlike green it’s only ever used in savoury recipes as it’s considered to be too bold for desserts. It can be a little tricky to find if you don’t have an Asian grocers nearby, in which case there are plenty of online retailers that will deliver to your door.

Black cardamom is a relatively recent discovery for me. I bought it out of curiosity, thinking it was just a different colour of cardamom, I wasn’t expecting the sweet smoky aroma that escaped from the packaging. It sat in my spice cupboard for a couple of months before I was brave enough to use it as I didn’t how it would translate into my cooking. When I plucked up the courage and used it, I realised what’s been missing from so much of my Indian recipes all this time.

It has a warm, decadent flavour - a real ‘treat yo’self’ spice that’s not as much of a show-off as some (*cough*saffron*cough*). It’s sweet, fragrant and woody with almost menthol notes which mellow while cooking. The smokiness comes from the pods being roasted over an open fire and makes it unique in Indian cooking. These traits mean its best used when cooking low and slow, giving it time to release all those complex layers of flavour.

This aromatic flavour bomb is full of anti-viral and anti-inflammatory properties meaning it’s great for helping fight off colds and flu now the seasons are turning. Its high in vitamins A and C too.

The recipe I’ve got for you this month is traditionally served in most Punjabi households at some point in the day, and is naturally rich and creamy without the need for cream or butter (but welcomes both). It really benefits from using dried kidney beans - which is a ballache but worth it to have the flavoursome liquid to use in the curry. You can of course used tinned, I’ve added this step into the method.

Don’t get put off by the Ottolenghi-length of ingredients - this is is quite normal for Indian recipes, and is actually just a case of adding a spoon of this and that so isn’t that time consuming.

The asafoetida and dried fenugreek leaves are optional as not easily available to all but do take a venture to a local Asian grocer or ‘world food’ aisle at the supermarket if you can. You won’t regret it for the spicy and savoury notes that they add. 

Serves 4 as part of a main meal with steaming hot basmati rice, a dollop of natural yogurt and some salad. And don’t actually eat the black cardamoms!

Rajma Masala (Kidney Bean Curry)

Ingredients:

  • 300g dried kidney beans (or 2 tins of cooked kidney beans)

  • 4 bay leaves

  • Oil

  • 3 black cardamoms

  • 1 stick cinnamon or cassia bark

  • 1 tsp cumin seeds

  • ½ tsp fennel

  • 2 medium white onions, chopped

  • 5 cloves garlic, crushed

  • Thumb of ginger, grated

  • 1 fresh green chilli, finely chopped (leave this out if you’re not good with heat)

  • ½ tsp red chilli powder (quantity is to your personal preference, but really this will add flavour more than heat. Be bold!)

  • 1 tsp turmeric

  • 1 tsp garam masala

  • 1 tbsp dried fenugreek leaves (aka kasuri methi)

  • 1 tsp asafoetida (aka hing)

  • 1 tbsp tomato puree

  • 1 tin of chopped tomatoes

  • Juice of half a lime

  • Large handful of fresh coriander, chopped (stalks and all please, no need to waste any deliciousness!)

  • Salt, to taste

Method

  1. If you’re using dried kidney beans, soak them in cold water overnight. They will almost triple in size so make you put them in container that’s big enough!

  2. After soaking for at least 8 hours, drain and rinse the beans, place in a large saucepan, cover in plenty of cold water and put on a high heat on the hob. Once boiling, throw in two of the bay leaves and leave to boil for 10 minutes, then put the lid on and simmer for about an hour, or until the beans are soft and cooked all the way through stirring occasionally. It’s really important that you don’t add any salt at this stage - as for cooking all beans, pulses and lentils from their dried state, salt makes them hard and will ultimately take longer to cook. Boiling is boring - don’t make things harder for yourself.

  3. While the beans are boiling you can get a head start on everything else. Heat your oil in separate pan and once hot add the cumin and fennel seeds. Turn down to medium to avoid burning them.

  4. After a few minutes the seed spices will start popping, then add the black cardamom, cinnamon and leftover bay leaves and gently cook for a couple of minutes ensuring nothing burns. The spices are infusing their oils into your cooking oil, meaning you’re getting the most flavour out of them.

  5. Add the onions and a pinch of salt and mix through well. Keep them on low and slow for however long it takes for them to get dark, caramelised and glossy. All masalas massively benefit from this stage, giving the final dish an intensely umami layer of flavour.

  6. Now stir through the ginger, garlic and fresh chilli and cook until they start to go golden.

  7. Add the powdered and dried spices - turmeric, garam masala, chilli powder, dried fenugreek leaves and asafoetida. Mix well and cook on low until in starts to smell fragrant. As ever on Spice Rack, cooking spices in the correct way and for long enough makes the world of difference to your cooking!

  8. Once the spices are cooked off, add the tomato puree and cook till the raw smell goes then add the tinned tomatoes. Season with salt, let it come to a boil on high and then simmer until the you can see the oil rise to the surface.

  9. Add the kidney beans and cooking water, or some of the liquid from the tin if using tinned. Cook on low for however much time you have - at least half an hour for the authentic version as this allows the masala to properly infuse the kidney beans.

  10. Check for seasoning, stir through the lime juice and coriander, and you’re done!

Other uses

  • You can make a delicious soothing tea from black cardamom by crushing the outer pod to release the seeds inside. Cover with a mug of water and simmer gently on the hob for 20 minutes.

  • Next time you serve basmati rice chuck in a pod for a beautifully fragrant accompaniment to your meal.

  • Black cardamom is often used in Vietnamese pho, alongside fellow aromatics cinnamon and star anise.

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Ruby (@rubydhalay) is a foodie who is passionate about finding pleasure and nourishment in food, exploring an holistic approach to cooking and eating.

Every month she'll be taking culinary inspiration from her roots and focussing on a different spice - talking about flavour, provenance, health and wellbeing, and most importantly how to get the most out of them in your cooking

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