The Chickpea

The chickpea is a good source of protein. It is also old. Really old. People have been growing chickpeas for a very long time. It is recorded that some remains of a chickpea were found in the Middle East which were 7,500 years old. You can only hope they were discovered as part of a cache, maybe the leftovers in a gold goblet, rather than someone digging up the Middle East specifically looking for really old chickpeas.

Anyway the chickpea comes from a plant which has small, light-fingered leaves not dissimilar to bracken. Little pods grow near these leaves, each containing two or three chickpeas. The plant has white flowers with blue and pink veins. They sound like they’d go well in a small jar on the kitchen table. There are basically three types, but there’s no real need to spend too much time worrying about the difference between the Desi, popular on the Indian sub-continent, the Kabuli – lighter and with a smoother coat than the Desi –  which grows in the Southern Europe, and the green chickpea which is green and grows somewhere else.

The history of the chickpea whilst long, is only of mild interest. Nothing to rival lurid links on the bottom of websites highlighting the ten best celebrity wardrobe malfunctions; nothing like that. They’ve been found in various diggings, in stuff from the ancient times; times when people supposedly associated the common chickpea with Venus as they were thought to be good for provoking menstruation, milk and sperm. In the late eighteenth century the Germans used to use chickpeas instead of coffee beans for a morning brew, and much of the Rhineland was given over to growing chickpeas during the First World War for this very purpose. Indeed, chickpeas are still sometimes brewed instead of coffee to this day, although it’s not recorded why anyone would actually do this. Presumably if you wanted a coffee, you’d just make a coffee and not boil up some chickpeas.

You would though boil up some chickpeas and leave them to simmer for a few hours if you were going to make a stew, or indeed if you were going to ground them up, shape them into little balls and serve up as falafels to the neighbours before they toss the car keys in the pot. The Portuguese like a chickpea, as indeed do Indians and most of the Middle East. Hummus, popular with the chattering classes, is made from chickpeas. So popular has hummus become that it can be found in almost twenty percent of fridges in the US, which is a statistic that is also only of mild interest. Chickpea flour is used in the Mediterranean flatbread, socca or farinata, that you’ll find in Genoa and along the Ligurian Sea coast, a stretch of Mediterranean coast named after the Ligures people: “Ligurian tribes, now shorn in ancient days, First of the long haired nations, on whose necks once flowed the auburn locks in price supreme” wrote Lucan in 61 AD to limited acclaim. Some varieties of chickpeas can be popped and eaten like popcorn. In the Philippines, they preserve their chickpeas in syrup and serve them up as sweets and in desserts. Ashkenazi Jews on the other hand, serve whole chickpeas at the Shalom Zachar celebration which is a gathering that takes place to welcome boys into the world. The ceremony is actually intended to console the new born, but they don’t tell the baby that as it’s generally meant to be a happy occasion.

It won’t be a surprise then to discover the chickpea is rich in nutrients. Why else would Nicholas Culpeper, the great English botanist and author of The English Physitian, write that “chickpease are less windy than peas, and more nourishing”. It’s not clear if that was a straight quote but there you go. The World Health Organisation think chickpeas are good news, as does the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation but then anything so rich in vital amino acids is bound to get the thumbs of from those concerned with public health. Not that we need to be told what to eat. Preliminary research also hints that putting away some chickpeas may also help to lower blood cholesterol which is enough reason on its own to supersize the tub of humus. There’s not much more to add about the common chickpea. Pakistan grows a few, as does Australia, but not nearly as much as India. The data is a bit dated, but India grow more chickpeas than pretty much the rest of the world put together. These are then ground, boxed up and shipped out to America to serve with nachos and cheese over the Superbowl; which happens to be this very weekend. The link though, you must be wondering about the link? What links Cicero and the common chickpea? Why Cicero itself. The great orators name comes from the Latin for chickpea. Cicer, for those who skipped Latin in the belief that learning French would better for chatting up good-looking women later in life. Interesting.

God bless America.

  • 1 can chickpeas
  • 1 can chopped tomatoes
  • 1 onion
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 1 thumb-sized knob of fresh root ginger
  • 1 teaspoon dried chilli flakes (to taste)
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon mustard seeds (yellow or black)
  • 2 teaspoons garam masala
  • 2 teaspoons ground coriander
  • 2 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 2 teaspoons paprika
  • ½ teaspoon turmeric
  • 2 tablespoons coconut milk
  • 1 handful coriander (chopped)
  1. First, put on your rice to cook if that is what you prefer to have with your curries. Drain and rinse chickpeas. Finely dice onion and finely chop the garlic and ginger. Heat oil in saucepan, add onion and cook, stirring occasionally, over medium heat until onions start to take on some colour.
  2. While onions are cooking, measure out all your spices, the salt and chilli flakes into a cup, ramekin or small bowl. When the onions are lightly browned, add garlic and ginger, stir and cook for a further minute.
  3. Tip in the spice mix and give a stir while cooking a further minute or two. Turn heat down at any point if it looks like the onions are at risk of burning.
  4. Tip in the tomatoes. Stir everything together and cook a further minute or two. Add chickpeasand coconut milk. Another stir and a couple of minutes on the hob until chickpeas are heated through.
  5. Sprinkle over coriander, if you fancy it, to serve. Serve with whatever curry-related extras you like. Rice, pitta or nan bread, a yoghurt-cucumber raita.




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