Get to know rajma, the healthiest of beans.

Anita says a colleague arrived at college one morning, and, bathed in honest pride and sweat, said she was late because she had cooked rajma before leaving home. To which another colleague with a guttural voice said, “Rajma! Kya aapke ghar mehmaan aa rahe hain?” I didn’t understand what colleague 2 meant: what did cooking rajma have to do with having guests? So Anita questioned my provenance and pityingly explained that rajma was a party dish for many Dilli-walas. I think rajma is considered special because it has the fancier spices and it takes more time and effort, compared to plain yellow dal: remember to soak it the night before, then get up at the crack of dawn and pressure-cook it for hours, grate onions, pound ginger and garlic to a paste, purée half a kilo of tomatoes, grind garam masala… Whereas yellow dal takes a few minutes to boil, and can be tempered with just a pinch of cumin and a green chilli.

Rajma, red kidney beans, came to India from the New World, and are said to be one of the best, healthiest foods. They contain zero fats, saturated or trans-fat, zero sodium and high dietary fibre. What could be better? The recipe I learnt from Neetu is a little different. Though it takes as long to cook, the flavouring is different. There are no tomatoes, garam masala is optional, and onions etcetera are minimal. She cooks with imli, tamarind and gur, raw brown sugar. The end result has a sweet-and-sour taste and flavour reminiscent of pickles, redness from deep red Kashmiri chillies, and a piquant freshness from the unexpected use of methi dana, fenugreek seeds. I add a generous pinch of kala namak, rock salt, which one usually associates with chaat.

But a great breakfast side dish is rajma à la tinned baked beans. We started making this way back when the children returned from school in the middle of the afternoon, famished despite school lunch, and ate eggs and toast and baked beans, made cheap and clean in our kitchen. The beans used in tinned baked beans are a different variety, but we used regular rajma and still do, when we’re all at home for Sunday breakfast. I used to buy a variety called “capsule’, perfectly named because they do indeed look like capsules – of an iron supplement or antibiotic – long, thick, deep maroon perfect cylinders. But since my mother didn’t teach me, it was only years later that I learnt to get rajma “chitra” instead: smaller than “capsule” and less symmetrical, they’re kidney bean shaped and paler coloured, a peachy-beige flecked with brown. These cook faster and though they retain their shape, the beans are softer after cooking.

Rajma without tomatoes

(Serves 4)

1 cup rajma soaked overnight, Salt, 1 tbsp mustard oil, Half tsp fenugreek seeds, Half tsp turmeric, 1 onion grated fine, Half tsp garlic paste, Half tsp ginger paste, 1 tsp coriander powder, 1 tsp red chilli powder, 1 tbsp tamarind pulp soaked, 2 tsp gur (grated), Pinch powdered kala namak, 1 tbsp green chilli juliennes, 2 tsp chopped fresh coriander.

Method: Discard water and pressure-cook rajma with salt in about five cups fresh water: after full pressure is reached, simmer on low heat for 20 minutes. Allow to cool. In a large heavy bottomed pan, heat oil, fry fenugreek, add onions and sauté till golden. Add ginger and garlic and brown. Stir in coriander and chilli powder. Cook on low heat for a couple of minutes. Add beans only and stir on medium heat for a few minutes, till coated with masala. With a ladle, take out a cup of fried rajma and purée with a cup of the water used for boiling. Add the rest of the water to the pan and bring to a boil. Add puréed rajma, stir in sieved tamarind pulp, grated gur and kala namak and check for seasoning. Add fresh coriander and green chillies. Serve hot with white boiled rice.

Rajma “baked beans”

(Serves 4)

1 cup rajma soaked overnight, Salt, 10-12 peppercorns, 1 tbsp vegetable oil, 1 large onion sliced thinly, Half cup tomato purée, Tomato ketchup, Malt vinegar, 4 green chillies slit(optional).

Method: Prepare rajma with peppercorns and only two cups of water. In a wide frying pan, heat oil and sauté onions till transparent but not browned. Add tomato purée and cook on high heat, stirring frequently, until oil is released. Tip in boiled rajma and water and continue to cook on high heat till sauce begins to thicken. Add about a tablespoon each of ketchup and vinegar, allow to come to a boil and remove from heat. Add green chillies.