I was so excited when I discovered in the frozen section at Lotus, a local Asian Subcontinent Supermarket in Sandringham, Auckland, green chickpeas. I, with lack of thought, did not even know such a thing existed. Chickpeas, for me, were these wart like objects that Cicero, the Roman orator, was nicknamed after because of the one on his face! (Cicer was Latin for chickpea). They were dried, brown, gnarly, and very long-winded! I felt as though I had discovered a huge secret that I needed to tell EVERYONE – despite the fact that a large section of the world’s population could stand back and laugh at my naivety.
These tiny fresh green chickpeas are basically the young, fresh forms of the mature chickpea. In Asia they are often sold with the branches that they grow on, they are then plucked from the branches and then their soft and fuzzy outer covering is removed to reveal the tiny young chana. The visionary food writer, Patience Gray, in her book Honey From A Weed, (1986) tells us that they may be eaten fresh, ‘Gathered fresh in May…they are a short lived delicacy, brilliant green, growing two in a pod: eaten raw they have a refreshing taste of lemon. But as the May sun in southern latitudes quickly dries them, they are imagined, even by Italians, to be born brown and born dry.’ Even if all you can get are the ‘fresh’ frozen ones, I recommend you try them, they are delicious, versatile and healthy.
The chickpea (Cicer arietinum – Cicer, Latin for chickpea and aries being ram) is an annual legume of the family Fabaceae, subfamily Fabiodeae. Chickpea seeds are high in protein. It is one of the earliest cultivated legumes, and 7500-year-old remains have been found in the Middle East. In Spanish speaking lands it is called the garbanzo, that name deriving from the Greek erebinthos. In 2017, India produced 67% of the world total for chickpeas. (UN Food and Agriculture Organization, Corporate Statistical Database (FAOSTAT). 2018.)
The different types of chickpea are variously known as garbanzo, Egyptian pea, Kala chana, chole or chholia or hare chaney, Desi or Bengal gram. In England the chickpea is known as chana.
There are two main kinds of commercial chickpea namely Kabuli (macrosperma) and Desi (microsperma), and both are important in terms of usage and commercial purposes.
Desi has small, darker seeds and a rough coat and is cultivated mostly in the Indian subcontinent, Ethiopia, Mexico, and Iran . Desi is sometimes called black chickpea.
Kabuli has lighter coloured, larger seeds and a smoother coat, and is mainly grown in Southern Europe, Northern Africa, Afghanistan, and Chile, and also was introduced during the eighteenth century to the Indian subcontinent.
Kabuli chana, says Tarla Dalal, is also known as Kala chana and is a variety of lighter coloured chickpeas, and is called Kabuli since they were thought to have come from Afghanistan when first seen in India. Kala chana is the type widely grown throughout the Mediterranean.
Generally, hara chana (Kala in origin) refers to the dried version of the green, or harbara, chickpea. It has a greenish colour, and a rough outer coating. Harbara chana is tastier than kala chana, as it acquires a slightly sweet taste when cooked.
(sources: top left, own image; top right, ‘Chana Dal, split Bengal gram’ is by Atudu, ‘Pods’ are by Eitan Ferman, ‘Fresh Green Harbara Chat’ & the heading image are both by Tarla Dalal; bottom image by Sanjay Acharya)
Chickpeas are used in different countries, have a place in the Jewish religion, and can be used in both savoury and sweet dishes.
Chickpeas are used extensively throughout the Middle East and in fact the Arabic word for chickpea is ‘hummus’. Chickpeas have traditions in many other countries, for example, in Portugal, chickpeas are one of the main ingredients in rancho, eaten with pasta and meat or with rice. In Spain, they are used cold in tapas and salads. From chickpeas come chickpea flour (besan) which is used to make ‘Burmese tofu’ which was first known among the Shan people of Burma. In South Asian cuisine the chickpea flour is used as a batter to coat vegetables before deep frying to make pakoras. The flour is also used as a batter to coat vegetables and meats before frying, or fried alone such as with panelle (little bread) a chickpea fritter from Sicily. Chickpea flour is used to make the Mediterranean flatbread socca and called panisse in Provence, southern France. In Tuscany chickpea flour (farina di ceci) is used to make an oven baked pancake.
In her The Book of Jewish Foods, 1996, Claudia Roden talks about the use of chickpeas in Sephardi cooking (Sephardic Jews are from the areas around the Mediterranean Sea, including Portugal, Spain, the Middle East and Northern Africa). Joan Nathan says that beans and peas, and especially chickpeas are traditionally eaten on Purim. Purim is a Jewish holiday which commemorates the saving of the Jewish people from Haman, an Achaemenid Persian Empire official who was planning to kill all the Jews, as recounted in the Book of Esther. According to tradition, while Queen Esther lived in the court of King Ahasuerus, she followed a vegetarian diet consisting largely of beans and peas so that she would not break dietary laws. For this reason it is customary to eat beans and peas on Purim. Jews from Ashkenazi countries (Ashkenaz in Hebrew refers to Germany) traditionally serve whole chickpeas at a Shalom Zachar celebration for baby boys.
In the Philippines, chickpeas preserved in syrup are eaten as sweets and in desserts such as halo-halo. In India, desserts such as besan halwa and sweets such as besan barfi and laddu are made from chickpea flour.
However, for many, one of the most familiar uses of chickpeas, Bengal grams and especially green chickpeas are to make curries. To return to the beginning, it is these first young green chana which are picked out of the pod and eaten as a raw snack, whose leaves are eaten as a leaf vegetable in salads and which make the basis for many different chickpea based dishes. It is these green chana which are, I think, the best version of the chickpea.
In NZ, and I suspect the UK, green chickpeas can easily be found in the freezer compartments of Indian Asian stores.