Chickpeas once found mainly in lonely containers nestled in ice on salad bars, are the new super food in America. This legume is very low in fat and sodium, high in protein, iron, vitamins, fiber, and antioxidants, and it is gluten-free.
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Pulses have been a major component of human diets throughout history. Chickpeas are one of the earliest cultivated legumes, an important component of Turkish, Middle Eastern, African, Spanish, Indian and various other cuisines for centuries. They are called garbanzo in Spain and Mexico, ceci in Italy, kichererbse in Germany, and revithia in Greece. In Arabic and Hebrew alike, hummus denotes both the chickpea itself and the dip made from it; a dip that has spread to many parts of the world.
There are two types of domesticated chickpeas — the familiar light-colored, large chickpeas with a smooth coat and the small, dark brown or green chickpeas with a rough coat, which are mostly cultivated in the Indian subcontinent. The darker variety are smaller, used both whole, split and powdered; this variety has a much lower glycemic index than their larger cousins. The familiar pale-colored chickpea was introduced to the Indian subcontinent in the 18th century from Afghanistan and is called kabuli chana (chana that came from Kabul) in India.
An inexhaustible variety of peas, beans and lentils are the mainstay and an important source of protein in Indian vegetarian cuisine. Grains and dried beans have a complementary relationship when they are served together because in combination they’re a source of complete protein.
When legumes are hulled and split, they are easy to cook and they are easily digested. Although several legumes are commonly used in Indian cuisine, Indian brown chickpeas are used in a wide variety of dishes, including breakfast dishes, snacks, curries and desserts. In India, this legume is known by many names — gram, Bengal gram, chana, kadali, among others.
The Indian domestic variety also has a higher fiber content than kabuli and a very low glycemic index. Research has shown that it helps to bring down blood cholesterol levels, and the low glycemic index is useful in the management of diabetes.
In India, whole legumes are called gram, while hulled split seeds are known as dal, though these words are often used interchangeably. The term dal can be even more confusing because, while it means split pea or bean, it also refers to the dish prepared from it. The domestic brown chickpeas are skinned and split to make chana dal. The skinned and split variety look just like yellow split peas, but are quite different because they doesn’t readily boil down to mush.
When chana dal is powdered, it is called besan or gram flour. Both of these have a milder flavor and texture than the kabuli variety. Puffed chana dal is roasted, split, and skinned chana dal, which is light yellow in color and mildly sweet.
The first step in cooking chickpeas is to soak them thoroughly. Whole chickpeas cook faster if they are soaked overnight in plenty of water. The soaking process also dissolves gas-causing elements into the soaking water. The longer you soak (within reason), the more gas generators are removed. Cookbook author Anissa Helou recommends adding a little bicarbonate of soda to the soaking water. This trick prevents the calcium in the water from cementing together the pectin molecules in the chickpea’s cell walls.
After soaking and discarding the soaking water, rinse the chickpeas thoroughly in several changes of water until the water runs clear. Usually, legumes are boiled in four to five times their volume in water and seasoned only after they are well cooked.
In India, pressure cooking is considered the ideal method for cooking legumes. After boiling, if the recipe allows, discard that water and rinse the beans again. If you are using canned chickpeas, drain the liquid from the beans and rinse.
There are a wide variety of dishes that can be prepared with chickpeas and chickpea flour. Here is a recipe for crispy chana dal vada (chickpea fritters).
1 cup chana dal
2 tablespoons chopped shallots
1 or 2 Thai green chili peppers finely chopped (reduce for milder taste)
1 tablespoon finely chopped curry leaves
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh ginger
Salt to taste
3 cups of oil for deep frying
1. Soak chana dal in water for 4 to 5 hours.
2. Drain the dal and grind into a thick, coarse paste with very little water in a food processor.
3. Transfer it into a bowl and add finely chopped shallots, green chilies, curry leaves, ginger and salt, and mix well.
4. Make equal-sized balls with the ground dal. Flatten the balls by pressing them in between the palms.
5. Heat oil in a pan on a medium flame and deep fry until golden brown.
Top photo: Chickpea fritters (chana dal vada), served with coconut chutney and Indian tea. Credit: R.V. Ramachandran