The date was October 3, 1999. The time was 11:00pm. How could I remember my first taste of masala so clearly? It was my second date–the day after our first date–with my now husband, Ed. After hitting three restaurants in Tampa in a 24-hour span, we decided to explore downtown St. Petersburg to grab a late bite to eat. Back then, at 10:30pm on a Sunday, hardly anything was open in a very different, very sleepy St. Pete.
Cruising down Beach Drive felt less than promising at that time of night. We drove all the way south to where Cassis stands now; if memory serves, it was a strip mall in those days. After turning back north on the seemingly desolate road, we parked in front of a quaint little restaurant–one of the few with lights even on: The Moon Under Water. We admired the homey front porch and brown shutters all around. This British Colonial pub served British food, Indian food, and a little bit of everything in between.
Ed wanted to try the chana masala to start us off; I had never tasted anything like it. This spicy chickpea and tomato dish served with naan bread was all new territory for me. It was spicier than the mild salsa I was accustomed to–most things are–and despite needing extra bread to combat the kick, I enjoyed how flavorful and exotic it tasted. Even though I considered myself to be very experimental when it came to food, I don’t think I had ever seen chickpeas anywhere but at a salad bar–I’ve obviously come a long way in 17 years. No laughing, please…
So much about St. Pete has changed since that night, but Moon–as the locals call it–has pretty much stayed the same, and I love that. Their building is now dwarfed on all sides by our city’s growth, but sitting on their porch, enjoying some tabbouleh or chana while sipping a pint, feels exactly as it did all those years ago–save for the pint part: I would have never ordered a beer back then. I’ve made a lot of progress!
After having Moon’s version dozens of times over the years, I needed to try making chana myself. The key ingredient–garam masala–is the spice blend that gives the dish its complexity: a complexity that makes it seem much more complicated to recreate than it actually is. This traditional Indian blend I have from Penzey’s Spices includes not four or five, but nine ingredients including coriander, pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, nutmeg, and caraway; there is a lot going on in the flavor department. Finding the spice is the hardest part; making the dish itself couldn’t be easier. Other than the time it takes to sweat the onions, it is a dump and go recipe. The longer you allow it to cook, the more the flavors develop; it is always better the next day. Garam masala can be found at Indian markets, spice stores, or online–each brand has its own unique version.
That night in 1999 was merely the first of many, many visits to Indian restaurants; my spice meter has even graduated to a medium! Little did I know then how much I would come to love Indian food over the years, and how four years after that first taste of masala–and St. Pete–that we would call that awakening ‘Burg our new home. We’ve lived here nearly 14 years now, and while I love how our town has drastically grown and changed, there’s still something to be said about how it used to be before all of the high-rises, before the Rowdies, before Baywalk, when The Birchwood was merely Grayl’s Hotel and when The Moon was the only place you could get a bite to eat at 10:30 on a Sunday night.
- 1 cup spanish onion finely diced
- 3 cloves Garlic minced
- 1 1/4 teaspoon garam masala
- 1/8 teaspoon Ground Cumin
- 2 Tablespoons tomato paste or tomato powder see note
- 2 cups canned chickeas drained and rinsed
- 1 cup canned fire-roasted tomatoes in juice
- 1 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- cayenne pepper to taste, optional
- 3/4 cup Water to thin
- 1 Tablespoon cilantro finely chopped
- Naan bread for serving
- Heat Dutch oven over medium heat, add oil. Sauté onions until translucent. Add garlic and stir for one minute.
- Sprinkle in garam masala, cumin and tomato paste (or powder) and stir until toasted, about 30 seconds.
- Add tomatoes with juice and chickpeas; season with salt and pepper. Season with cayenne pepper to taste, if using. Increase heat to medium-high and stir occasionally until mixture comes to a boil.
- Reduce to low and simmer for 15 minutes. If mixture gets too thick, thin with 3/4 cup water.
- Stir in cilantro just before serving. Serve with Naan bread.