21st century pulse: chickpeas

Categories: Expert guidance

To celebrate the International Year of Pulses, author and UN pulse ambassador Jenny Chandler explores these nutritional powerhouses and shares her tips on how best to prepare them. This month: chickpeas

In Britain, chickpeas are undoubtedly one of the most popular of all the legume family. Nowadays, you’re as likely to find hummus in a kid’s lunch box as you are ham or cheddar, and yet many children don’t even realise that they’re eating a pulse.

Native to the arid Middle East, chickpeas have been cultivated for about 9,000 years. Today they’re a staple food in a band of countries stretching from north Africa through the Levant to east India; the Italians, Spanish and southern French love their chickpeas too. Such an incredible spread of cooking cultures has given us literally thousands of dishes where chickpeas play the starring role, supping up the different flavours beautifully.

The pale, creamy kabuli chickpea grown in Europe and the Middle East is the most popular type outside of India where the much tougher, dark brown desai variety (also known as Bengal gram) is king. We tend to pick up a packet or can without even thinking about the different chickpeas on offer, but if you can track down some of the giant Spanish ones (often known as garbanzos lechosos) they have the most fabulous creamy texture.

The huge versatility of chickpeas is why I’ll often cook up a huge pot to store in the fridge and use over a few days (see below if you need a few cooking tips). My family love legumes (lucky, since I subjected them to well over a year’s worth of recipe testing while writing my book), but would certainly rebel if I served up a similar dish day after day.

My chickpeas are like chameleons; they seem to take on an entirely different character with each dish I cook. I love to go down the northern Indian route with a classic chana masala—this aromatic curry is an absolute corker if you use a good garam masala spice mix and finish off with a sprinkle of amchur, the sour green mango powder that gives the entire dish a fresh assertive flavour.

The next day, a Tuscan soup cooked in good chicken broth with garlic, rosemary and lemon would allow the smooth, creamy quality of blended chickpeas to shine. Whilst I was at it I could whizz up some more of the chickpeas for a classic hummus to go into a sandwich for the following day’s lunch.

Day four may be time for a spot of meat, and a simple Spanish cazuela with plenty of chorizo and peppers is always a winner. I could even steam a fillet of fresh hake or cod on the top. Any leftover chickpeas could be bagged up for the freezer to throw into a stew or soup, or toss into a tray of roasted veg at a later date. Husband and daughter won’t even have noticed that they’ve been on a chickpea run for most of the week.

When we talk about chickpeas we’re usually referring to the dried pulse, but fresh, lime-green chickpeas are available once in a while too, fabulous eaten like edamame straight from the pod. Another incarnation of the chickpea is the flour, known as gram flour or besan in India. You’ve probably eaten it unknowingly in bhajis and pakora or delicious airy pudla pancakes. The southern French and Italians have their versions of the pancake too, bigger and thicker and known as socca or farinata. Smaller fritters named panisse or panelle are popular too and definitely worth experimenting with. And, of course if you’re after a tasty gluten-free thickener for sauces, soups, curries or stews then gram flour is the answer. The chickpea is the ultimate multitasker.

I’d never be without a stock of chickpeas in my kitchen, be they tinned, dried, fresh or ground. There’s always a great dish around the corner and this meal in a bowl from Tunisia is definitely in my top 10.