This recipe is a little over ten years too late. I had promised to scribble it down for my dear friend, Gabi, after we devoured a plate of it, sitting on my bed, in my apartment in Rome, mopping up the spicy, oily tomato sauce with soft pizza bianca, flecked with sea salt crystals, fragrant with olive oil and reminiscent of a naan freshly taken out of a tandoor back home in Lahore.
Gabi came to visit me in Rome from Barcelona a few years ago – but when I think about it more carefully, it was actually a good ten years ago, because she arrived just a couple of days after the terrible 2004 Madrid train bombings. Having grown up in seven different countries, I often think of my life in ‘time blocks’, and therefore anything related to Rome, where I lived before moving to Toronto, seems to be but a mere few years ago. In reality, it has been five years since I left Rome.
During Gabi’s visit, I wasn’t able to take any time off from work, so she spent most of the day on her own, wandering the serpentine streets of Rome. By the time the evening approached, she was tired and wanted to stay in, which meant we could cook and eat together, while reminiscing about the olden days, when we were both fresh out of university and working for the IMF in Washington, DC. Every night we met up in Testaccio, where I lived for a brief period of time, and weaved in and out of the alimentari, small delis, collecting our dinner for the evening. One evening, we bought beautifully cut soft ribbons of fresh pasta from the shop perpendicular to the Testaccio market piazza, which we dressed with the anchovies Gabi had brought from Barcelona and then sprinkled it with roasted pignoli, golden, toasted breadcrumbs and chopped red chillies. Another night, we made a tagliata di manzo - with a beautiful cut of meat I found at the butcher’s, on the corner of Via Mastro Giorgio and Via Aldo Manuzio. We ate it alongside sharp, peppery leaves of arugula and gorgeous scarlet tomatoes, almost as tiny as marbles, which Gabi had bought earlier that day from the tomato vendor in the now defunct Testaccio market.
The meal I remember the most clearly is the one we had the night before Gabi flew back to Barcelona the next day. We decided to stay out of the kitchen and instead, share plates of small savoury bites, bought from the alimentari, with bread and wine. Of course, we started at Passi to pick up soft slabs of their pizza bianca. We then moved along in the neighbourhood and grabbed some dainty hot cherry peppers stuffed with capers and tuna, which we couldn’t stop popping in our mouths from the minute we bought them. We were both craving some wobbly burrata, too, which after searching in the area, we could only find at the local grocery store’s deli counter, wrapped in a verdant, waxy leaf. Gabi and I had tried burrata for the first time at one of my beloved entoeche, Cul de Sac, the day she arrived, where we sat for three hours, feasting on sheep’s milk cheeses, salty, cured meats and courtesy of the owner’s son, Marco, a large orb of burrata. Finally, on our way home, we made a stop at the Enoteca Palombi for a bottle of red, often one suggested by the elderly, elegant owner and his wife – some sort of Supertuscan, a favourite of mine and Gabi’s back then.
Upon our arrival home, even though we had decided not to cook that night, I thought I would add something warm to the mix, and the easiest dish to prepare was this chana masala. Whenever I was craving something spicy with carbs which needed to be prepared quickly, Ami made this for me. All you needed was some tomatoes, ginger, garlic and green chilies – items which you will almost always find in a Pakistani home. In Rome, I usually had the fresh tomatoes and garlic, but only a ginger paste, and I most certainly didn’t have any fresh green chillies on a regular basis, unless I had made a special trip to the market in the Piazza Vittorio. I substituted the fresh ginger with ginger paste and the green chillies with Calabrian red chili powder. We sat on my bed, plates in our hand, tearing off pieces of the pizza bianca, dipping into the clotted cream-like core of the burrata and enjoying all the sweet, milky, spicy, oily flavours which were simultaneously on our plates.
And then there was glorious, glorious dessert. Gabi’s friend from undergrad in America had moved to Italy and married an Italian who had recently founded a chocolate company called Domori. Domori chocolates hadn’t hit the market widely yet, and we got to sample all the deep, intense flavours, thanks to her friend and her husband. Even before Gabi had arrived, a large parcel containing boxes of Domori chocolates had been sent to my address. Had I known what was in the parcel, they probably would have been half-consumed by the time my friend had arrived in Rome.
So, this dish is truly ten years too late, but writing about it now reminded me of a beautiful week I spent with one of my dearest friends, eating, cooking, drinking and talking – the things we love to do with old, dear friends.
Serves 2 with a side of bread or rice
You will need a medium-sized sauce pan which has a lid
*2 medium tomatoes, blanched, skins removed and diced (If you don’t have fresh tomatoes, you can make this with half a can of diced tomatoes, i.e., you will need about 200g/7oz)
*2 tbsp neutral oil (I use grape seed)
*2 cloves of garlic, minced
*1/2 tsp hot paprika
*1/2 tsp cumin powder
*1/4 tsp turmeric powder
*1 400g can of pre-cooked organic chickpeas/garbanzo beans. I use the Eden brand
*salt to taste (you will salt this based on the brand of garbanzo beans you use – some are very salty)
*1 5cm (2in)thumb ginger, julienned
*2 green thai bird chillies (or any other fresh chilli pepper of your choice. If you don’t have fresh chilli pepper, you can add 1/2 tsp of red chilli powder)
*herb of choice for adornment
*lime or lemon wedges
*Place a saucepan on medium-high heat and add oil and garlic. When the garlic begins to smell fragrant (make sure it doesn’t start to brown), add paprika, cumin powder and turmeric powder. Sauté for 1-2 minutes.
*Add can of garbanzo beans, including the liquid they are immersed in. Stir to combine.
*Add diced tomatoes, turn flame to medium-low and cover with lid for 10 minutes and allow to simmer.
*Remove lid, add salt to taste and the julienned ginger. Chop green chilies with kitchen shears straight into the saucepan. Gently stir.
*Garnish with herbs and serve with lime or lemon wedges and rice or bread.