If food was synonym to emotions, then choley – the evergreen star of the Dilli food – could easily stand in for the ultimate “bear-style, loving, warm hug”  

By Madhulika Dash; Image courtesy: Vaibhav Bhargava and freepik  

Nothing, and we mean nothing, quite transforms a dull morning into this bright, lovable, delicious day like a bowl of warm choley rightly seasoned, garnished with fistful of chopped onion served along with a pillow-like batura or two. For most Indians, choley isn’t just a season must-have, but the single ingredient that makes winters, special. Think about it, aside being quintessential winter breakfast that many credit the post partition immigrants to create, introduce and popularize (the legendary Kasturi Lal Wadhwa of Pindi being one of them) at least in the north, choley is a standard feature of the winter feast table too, often mixed and matched with paneer and leafy greens. Even in its most basic format, that of the chaat, choley is loved not just for its creamy, balmy taste but satiating and nourishing nature as well.  

BUT HOW DID CHOLEY – a legume that is said to have arrived in India from Turkey first in the BC and then around the 18th century with traders and invaders – rose to such culinary prominence? The answer is, says culinary historian Dr Ashish Chopra, “in the perfect marriage of functionality and nourishment of choley or chickpea, which remains the second widely grown crop in the world after soybean – and historically is amongst the eight crops that laid the foundation of the agrarian society. In other words, the civilization.”

Fascinatingly, chickpeas journey to becoming the famous eight began, says Dr Chopra, “in the wild around the regions of southeastern Turkey and Syria during the pre-pottery Neolithic period. Food-lore has it that chickpea bushes were first discovered by early settlers as one of the few foraged edibles that could be transplanted into a piece of the clear land. Seasonal, easy to store and extremely satiating, the wild chickpeas, or the kala channa was the first to proliferate the different regions of India, including India around the early 3000 BC, where the legume earned the moniker desi over a period.”

CHICKPEA’S BREEDING AND SOIL AND CULINARY ADAPTABILITY became one of the significant reasons for the legume popularity as it could, continues the historian, “change its composition to suit the different region through breeding. In fact, as crops go, chickepeas or choley was one of the first legumes to kickstart the practice of breeding and cross-breeding – a technique that even today is used to create more suitable variety of crop. But the ability to adopt was one side of choley’s success story. The other factor behind its wide acceptability was, says culinary evangelist Chef Nimish Bhatia, “the easy nature of cooking. The legume, which like most of ancient peers, yielded beautifully to the technique of boiling for long hours, scored an ace with its taste that needed no extra love but wasn’t averse to the idea of a little tweaking as well. In fact, this quality made kala channa one of the important crops mentioned not just in Markandeya Purana but also in early literature of Buddhism and Jainism. Interestingly, the boiled channa (and the sprouted one too) were a standard part of the monk’s meal. It was believed that the channa had the power of satiating the soul and hence a small bowl of it allowed time for meditation.”

MONKS WERE NOT THE ONLY ONE who found kala channa virtuous, vaids and priests too saw the superfood potential and made it a part of their rituals. While channa became a winter staple for warriors and commoners alike, in temples it became a part of the raw and cooked prasad. Till date Sundal is an important offering on Vinayak Chaturthi.  

As a delicious source of protein and fibre, says nutritional therapist Shaveta Bhassin, “a bowl of warm choley did more than just become a filling treat – it was functional as well. Combined thoughtfully, choley could become a balanced meal too. Take the classic pairing of Choley Batura itself. While the good slice of our daily requirement of protein comes from chickpea, the roughage needs help in digestion, and that’s what the buttered kulcha or pillowy batura did with its extra fat that helped the fibre to digest. Add to that a bowl of salad, even the fresh radish, and a pickle – and the meal (in moderation) takes care of a generous slice of nutrition needed by the body. Pair it with greens, and the meal gets the necessary vitamins and minerals.”

INCIDENTALLY, CENTURIES LATER, says Chef Bhatia, “when the domesticated variety famously called the garbanzo beans and Kabuli Channa in India made its way from Turkey here, it followed the same path to popularity. Differentiated by its large, beige, beaked, rounded appearance, the new domesticated variety thanks to its earlier desi peer was soon adopted into the culinary space. Attuned to the changing styles of cooking, the credit of popularizing Kabuli Channa that got its name from both the place of origin and the kabuliwala who would sell the new choley as a chaat made of boiled chickepea seasoned with a spicemix and black salt turned it into a lovable treat.”  

Creamier than the desi variant, Kabuli Channa or Choley’s charm was in its taste profile. Sublime yet versatile, Kabuli Channa could yield beautifully to different flavours – from the subtle to the robust. It was chickpea’s this very quality along with its inherent rich taste and the tendency to cook quicker than its older brethren that made it an easy pick for a country that had turned into a cauldron of newer food influences.

WHILE THAT EXPLAINS HOW KABULI CHANNA TOOK over the imagination of an entire nation, especially during winters when it grows with a flourish, the creation of different choley could be attributed, says Dr Chopra, “to the different food influences driven by the changing political dynamics that saw not just communities migrating to our region, but also newer techniques and cooking style. One such culinary technique that came to the play with kabuli channa was the Mughlai style of cooking. Another was the Saraiki community who were masters of rustic cooking and aromatic spice mixes that often would have the best of spices traveling on the Silk Route.”

However, continues Chef Bhatia, “the most prominent influence in creating choley was that of the Grand Trunk Road, which, over the years, had become the culinary highway of innovation. It was from this road that cooking styles, spice mixes and even influences made their inroads towards civilization, where it evolved into dishes that appealed to the people of the region. A classic case of this is the Himachali Channa Madra where the primary flavour is that of buttermilk.”

THE EVOLUTION OF CHOLEY as we know today however took place at the different community bases called pinds. Each pind, says food alchemist Chef Vikas Seth, Culinary Director, Garam Masala, “back in the day was known for its unique style of preparing a certain dish. It was here that choley got its many variations including the chikat choley and the popular peepe wale choley-kulcha.”

The latter in fact, recalls Chef Seth, “was a sensation in the bylanes of Punjab, especially Amritsar where there would be people selling peepe wale choley kulcha on a cycle. Peepe were these large 5-kilo tin containers for ghee that would be filled with choley, which would be served on a curry-soaked kulcha topped with choley garnished with ginger. The moist roll would be one of the finest indulgences, especially during winters when the choley tasted the best.”

It was the same familiar feeling and that addictive, balmy taste of choley at work that won K L Wadhwa and Pindi restaurant, its life-long patrons for their signature dish of choley-batura post partition.  

THE QUESTION WHY THE CHOLEY made for such fascinating dish is a hard phenomenon to explain, however, say the chefs, “there is little doubt about the legume’s ability of becoming a canvas once it is boiled and ready to be played on. Then, it is all about a cook’s ingenuity and how well he can pair interesting flavours, including mustard paste.”

Which brings us to the key question: What is the benchmark of a well made choley that according to legendary writer Jiggs Kalra “is the real soul of choley bature”? Some of the finest choley recipe are ones that, concludes Dr Chopra, “practice restrain, both in their cooking technique and spices. And that what makes Dilli Ke Choley, an absolute delight.”