Monday, October 24, 2011

Das's Chickpea Salad

I never meant to threaten my housemate with a knife.

I was living at the time with a couple of Anglo women who studied too hard, and a Pakistani man named Das. Das had very regular habits. Every morning, he left for work in his little white car; every evening, he came home, parked in the driveway, stayed for an hour or two then, while we women headed back to our desks, he went to put in a few hours at a friend’s restaurant. On weekends, if we were lucky, he cooked.

One weekday I came home to what should have been an empty house. The driveway was empty, but to my alarm the front door was swinging open. I peeked in, and called ‘hello?’. There was no answer, so I called louder. Again, silence. Heart pounding, I stepped softly into the hallway, tiptoed to the kitchen and, being a silly young thing, grabbed a long knife. Then I crept around the house, checking each and every room – behind the doors, under the beds, the works – until I came, at last, to Das’s room. He wasn’t home; his car wasn’t in the driveway; he was at work.

But I thought I heard the sound of breathing.

So I crept in, knife raised high, only to find Das dozing on the bed. I shrieked, he opened his eyes and yelled, and I collapsed in hysterical giggles.

It turned out he’d felt sick at work. He’d left in a daze early, parked his car randomly up the street, staggered in the front door, and collapsed into bed, only to be woken by the knife wielding maniac that was me.

These days I’m older and wiser; I figure I’m the only person likely to be injured in a knife fight. So I keep my kitchen knives where they belong, and use them to chop vegetables and think of Das.

He was a terrific cook. I particularly remember eating industrial quantities of his chickpea salad, served warm. I still dream of it; mine, sadly, is never as good.

Chickpea salad is very simple, but it depends on two things. For one, I have never eaten a canned chickpea that hasn’t tasted tinny, so I cook my own from dried. If you don’t mind the tinny taste, you are welcome to use canned chickpeas, but for mealy chickpea perfection, cook them yourself.

The other is to chop the other vegetables neatly, chickpea sized or smaller. It makes the salad visually appealing, and it means that each mouthful is an explosion of different flavours.

Chaat masala is a spice mix for salads. Dried green mango and asafoetida give it sourness; and then about a dozen other spices just make it taste good! You can buy it at any Indian or Pakistani grocery store. It’s worth having a packet in your pantry just for this salad; I certainly do.

Das’s Chickpea Salad (Very Easily Multiplied!)

- 1 cup cooked chickpeas. If they are warm, so much the better.
- 2 medium carrots, diced small
- 1 celery heart, or 2 stalks celery
- 1 long cucumber
- a small bunch of coriander, chopped
- a hefty pinch of chaat masala
- the juice of a lemon

If you are using the celery heart, shred it crossways right up into the yellow leaves. If you are using celery stalks, dice them as small as the carrot.

Peel the cucumber entirely if the skin is coarse. Halve it lengthways. Cut out the seeds by slicing a shallow V and scraping them out. Dice the remaining flesh nice and small.

Chop the coriander coarsely.

Combine the chickpeas with the vegetables and the coriander. Dress with a generous amount of lemon juice, and sprinkle with a little chaat masala to taste. Mix well.

This makes enough for two or three lunches. In lieu of my mother’s chappatis – how I miss them! – I eat it with homemade unleavened bread made with buckwheat flour and sprinkled with nigella, or with fresh pita.

(Localish: chickpeas from Horsham area; carrots, coriander, lemons. Not so local: celery, salt, chaat masala.)

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