Smile Politely

Food for all: Chana Masala

As part of Smile Politely’s and Common Ground Food Coop’s partnership highlighting the Food for All program, I chose to document my experience cooking chana masala, an amazing Indian dish. I jumped at the chance. After all, I love to cook, and I live on an excruciatingly tight budget. According to the recipe, I’d be able to prepare four servings for just a little over $5! Can’t beat that.


Chana masala

2 T. bulk canola oil $0.16

1 med yellow onion $0.65

1 lg clove garlic $0.07

1 in fresh ginger $0.26

1 T. garam masala $0.43

1 T. curry powder $0.38

1 T. tomato paste $0.20

1 lg russet potato (from a 5-lb bag) $0.33

3 cups cooked chickpeas, from dry bulk $0.69

2 t. Santa Cruz bottled lemon juice $0.19

½ t. salt $0.02

Crushed red pepper flakes, to taste $0.00

1 ½ cups long grain brown rice $1.36

1 T. Earth Balance $0.33 OR 1 T. butter ($0.49)



Before I trekked the two blocks to Common Ground, I took stock of what I already had in the pantry. (I do keep a few staples around at all times, like canola oil, salt, onions, butter, and tomato paste, so I didn’t need to buy everything on the list.)

Armed with my recipe-and my painfully thin wallet, I scavenged the store, hunting for the remainder of the ingredients. First stop: bulk items. Admittedly, I don’t buy in bulk as often as I should, but it really pays to go this route. I bought three cups of dried garbanzo beans for $1.55, 0.08 lbs of curry powder for $1.37, and a little over a half-pound of rice for $1. Not bad. According to the recipe, red pepper flakes were listed at $0.00, which I found to be a little misleading. Unless you already have some red pepper flakes at home, you won’t be getting them for free. Granted, if you do buy a tiny amount, it probably will be less than $0.10.

Next, I picked up a chunk of ginger, a potato, and some lemon juice. The recipe indicated that the potato’s cost was based on that from a five-pound bag, but I didn’t have the funds to buy an entire bag of potatoes. So I just bought a single potato at about $0.45. The Santa Cruz organic lemon juice was the most expensive item on my list. I cringed at the $5.29 price tag. I could’ve purchased an actual lemon and squeezed it for much less. According to the recipe, however, I’d be using $0.19 worth of lemon juice. And in the long run, purchasing an entire bottle would be worth it because I frequently cook with lemon juice. Still, I wondered about shoppers who might be reluctant to throw down $5 for lemon juice when they’re strapped for cash.

Total grocery bill? A respectable $9.88.

(Warning: If you have to purchase everything on the list, you’ll probably spend more like $15-$20. For instance, it’s likely you won’t be purchasing just one tablespoon of tomato paste at $0.20; you’ll buy a can for $1.29. Likewise, you won’t purchase one clove of garlic; you’ll buy a whole head.)


As someone who always buys canned beans, I was shocked to discover that dried beans have to soak overnight. #@&%^! Would I have to order a $15 pizza for dinner instead? Turns out, no. In my Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant cookbook, I found a whole bean section in the back. I was surprised to see that the authors suggest cooking with dried beans, as opposed to canned beans, “to avoid the chemicals added to most canned beans” — disodium EDTA and calcium chloride. They also recommend two ways to soak beans: one overnight, one for just an hour or two. Whew! Looks like we’d be eating tonight after all.

Maybe. After soaking the beans for 90 minutes, I went to the next step in Moosewood’s method for cooking beans. My eyes bulged out of my head. Two-and-a-half to three more hours of cooking! AAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHH! There’s no way I could wait that long. I pondered running over to Schnuck’s for a couple of cans, but decided, no, I’m cooking these damned beans. I rinsed them, put them back in the pot, started boiling them in the hopes that they’d cook quickly, and hoped for the best. If they got mushy, that’d be okay. It would be like hummus masala. No biggie. (Oh yeah, another word to the wise: Beans get bigger as they soak! I soaked three cups of dried beans, only to discover that, once soaked, I had double the amount!)

While the beans were boiling and the rice was cooking, I started to prepare the chana masala by chopping the onion. Because I’m not real big on onions, I only used half. The recipe wouldn’t suffer. I sautéed the onion in a deep frying pan with canola oil. After making sure the onions were nice and translucent, I turned the temperature down and added the minced garlic and ginger, spices, and tomato paste. After stirring this concoction, I pureed it in the food processor until it turned into a thick paste. Then I put it back in the pan, where I proceeded to fry it until it turned medium brown. My kitchen smelled heavenly.

After adding about a cup of water to the paste, I added the russet potato (diced). I brought it to a boil, then simmered it for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. (Beware. The turmeric in the curry powder is an indelible bright yellow. So when you stir, make sure you’re wearing an apron or an old t-shirt. Of course, I found this out the hard way. Even Shout is no match for turmeric.)

After 10 minutes, I added the garbanzo beans, salt, red pepper flakes, and lemon juice. (Note: Although on the list of ingredients, the lemon juice isn’t included in the cooking directions. C’mon, people, what gives? This stuff’s expensive! I bought a $5 bottle of lemon juice for nothing?) I simmered this for another 10 minutes. I noticed that it needed a little more lemon juice, so I put in two more teaspoons, as well as another teaspoon of salt. When it was finished, I poured the chana masala over the rice. Ta-da!

By the way, I always like to have a good green veggie on the side, so I bought a $2.99 bunch of kale, which I sautéed in canola oil, garlic, lemon juice, and red pepper flakes.


Wow! This chana masala recipe is a tasty, filling, fantastically savory meal. I probably would have simmered the potatoes about five to ten minutes longer, because they weren’t completely tender. Frantically boiling the garbanzo beans for an hour was a success, however! They were nice and soft. My dinner partner and I each had one large helping, and there was plenty for the next day. In fact, with a little bit more water and lemon juice, second-day reheated chana masala tasted even better.


Hearty, organic food can seem out of reach for those of us who scrimp and save. It’s cheaper to buy the processed, chemical-laden crap in big-box grocery stores. The cool thing is, Common Ground is making an effort to make sure we can all eat wonderful, nutritious food through the Food for All program, along with various events and workshops. In fact, Common Ground’s offering a free event on Wednesday, June 24, from 6–7 p.m., called “Eating Healthy on a Budget” (pre-registration required). I’ll be there, because I have a lot to learn about frugal cooking. General manager Jacqueline Hannah will teach techniques, tips, time-savers, and how to make every dollar count. I hope she covers beans.

Photos by William Gillespie and Cristy Scoggins

(Ed. note: this is the first in what we hope will be a monthly series cooking through different recipes that Common Ground has available as part of their Food For All program. The recipes are available on a cart near the checkout area if you want to try one of them yourself.)

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