How do you up an ingredient that is already on top of its game? Here’s how the famous chickpea or “vilayati channa” is creating its upswing once again.
Two years ago, when culinary consultant Chef Pradeep Tejwani, Founder, Young Turks, began working on his “comfort food, reimagined” concept Jugni, the idea was simple: to take food from the global highway and give it a kind of Bollywood-style rejig. It was during the R&D, says the legacy Sindhi Chef, “that I chanced upon two very interesting facts about chickpeas: one, how widely popular this ingredient was in its versatility and reach, and two, how significant a part it is of the changing commercial kitchen set up today, especially in the current scenario when there is a need to find gluten-free, plant-based alternatives.”
Think about it, says Chef Akshraj Jodha, Executive Chef, ITC Grand Bharat, “chickpeas or channa that came to Rajasthan around the earlier years of dynasty making, is the base ingredient in half of the state’s vegetarian fare. Whether it is giving kadhi that rich, velvety taste, the popular gatta or the Marwari Chootia Ki Chakki that led to what we today fondly call as besan ke ladoo. In fact, Pithor that traditionally used channa dal to make these square cubes that resembled tofu or hard paneer in texture and taste remains one of the fascinating innovations of the legume till date in the state and is among the many ways chickpeas endeared itself to different cultures.”
Of course, the best ode to chickpea has been the West Asian cuisine where the legume occupies a prime place in the culinary tapestry. And in some manner, says Chef Vikas Seth, Culinary Director, Embassy Leisure, “remains a major influence in the way chickpea was adopted across the world. In fact, old Silk Route records credit the Arab merchants as much as they do the early Roman and Greek rulers for popularising chickpea by making it a part of their food ration. This way, chickpea didn’t only travel as an ingredient that had better shelf life much like some spices, but also with its different culinary uses.”
In fact, adds Chef Seth, “thanks to chickpeas’ ability to adopt and grow in abundance, and that fat-like texture that helps in binding while cranking up the taste of any dish it is added to, was one of the many reasons that chickpea, a legume said to be European in origin, rose from being a part of the gladiator barley gruel to a staple on the legendary Marcus Gavius Apicius’s epicurean table and Pompeii’s thermopolium. There is a good chance that by the time it came to Indian soil — which many believe came partly through the Silk Route and partly through invaders — chickpea was well known.”
The channa shift
India, however, says Chef Srijith Gopinath, Chefpreneur, Ettan, “was a country that had worked with kala channa before and the coming in of Kabuli channa that we today call channa, was just an addition to the huge repertoire of innovation that its earlier brethren had already set in place. In fact, one of the earlier adoptions of chickpea was in the form of sattu that was made with lentils, legumes and cashewnuts among others. Besan was an obvious graduation to that.”
Chickpeas’ addition to sattu, says Chef Sabyasachi Gorai, “was in fact one of the faster ways chickpea reached the furthest corners of not just India but much of Southeast Asia as well as it was a part of the monk’s meal, and that of the warrior clan, especially the group of selected soldiers and spies that were an integral part of the political machinery.”
At the ground level, however, Chef Gorai continues, “chickpea’s run was as a commercial crop because of its chameleon nature. Chickpeas could adopt to newer places through cross pollination, and thus were conducive as a commercial crop pan India. Of course, the early adoption of chickpea was partially because of its taste and partially because it could add volume to any cooking — both in terms of quantity and texture.”
In fact, adds Chef Gopinath, “the bite and the resulting buttery taste were the two reasons that made chickpea a part of many traditional dishes that also used kala channa. What made chickpea earn the extra brownie points was its ability to cook faster than its desi peer, which meant you could add it to any dish to make it thick, filling and even in terms of texture.”
Rise as an alternative
A virtue that came to the forefront once again a few years ago when Slow Food and other chef’s forums fighting hunger and food shortage at a global level began looking for alternatives that were sustainable and yet had the ability to replace some of the ingredients that seem irreplaceable. Milk, meat, and chocolates were some of the ingredients that made it to the top of the list. This awareness along with lifestyle conditions that warranted meals to be less in gluten led many chefs to revisit one of the oldest globetrotters in their food kitty: the chickpea.
Chef Seth, who with peers like Chef Gorai and Chef Gopinath, began working on the different facets of the legume that once helped an imprisoned Shah Jahan eat well during the last eight years of his life, finds chickpeas to be an amazing alternative not just to diary and tofu, but to eggs as well. Aquafaba, says Chef Seth, “which is essentially chickpea water is an excellent replacement of egg with bonus of nutrients in it because channa while boiling leaches some of its protein and fat into the water. This makes aquafaba akin to a rich stock that can be used in a variety of ways.”
One such example is the Kala Channa Shorba served by Chef Yogender Pal, Executive Chef at Grand Hyatt Kochi Bolgatty. Based on the 17th-century recipes of shorba served to Emperor Shah Jahan during his last few days, Chef Pal’s version brings in Deccan flavours and is served cappuccino style with the foam made from, says the chef, “aquafaba that I also use while recreating the plant-based alternative to the Cheliyas popular breakfast of keema-pav.” In this case, however, says the Kochi food specialist, “we change it to the tofu made with boiled chickpea while the aquafaba is used to create the velvety mouthfeel of poached egg.”
Another, of course, is Chef Tejwani who has used the different forms of chickpeas to create a kind of Bollywood ode to the burrito where, he says, “I used channa instead of refried beans to give it that typical pind choley-wala twist.” Of course, he has a version for those turning plant based too, where he replaces even the paneer with one created with channa along with the sauce base made from aquafaba.
The rediscovery of channa in the recent past has made it an inseparable part of many chefs’ studio including that of Sofitel BKC Executive Chef Siddarth Noronha’s for whom channa is quite literally the frontrunner of sustainable food practices. “Whatever you can do with any lentil or besan,” he says, “chickpea can do better, whether as crouton in soups, as the hummus-style spread on toast, in cookies for creaminess or just protein and fibre packed smoothie bowls that are easy to digest, and pack in quite the punch when it comes to fibre, vitamins, potassium, magnesium and folate.”
Chickpea does it better
The beauty of chickpeas, continues Chef Noronha, “lies in the way these beans yield to the cooking technique. You can have them as smooth as you want or give them that nutty crunch by baking them. And that makes them an amazing addition not just to salads, but also to desserts where you are looking for that bite in cookies, and, when barbequed, on pizza as well.”
Chef Gorai, who like Chef Reuben Bhate of Sette Mara, The St Regis Mumbai, has worked with a wide variety of Middle Eastern dishes that use chickpea including the all-popular hummus, finds chickpea and its different innovations a more practical way to build sustainable eating habits.
It is great tasting, he says, “can be cranked up or down with flavours, weaves beautifully into any type of cuisine, and has this sublime, buttery taste that makes the shift relatively delicious, besides being available round the year.”
This can explain not just why chefs are eagerly rekindling the affair with Apicius’ favourite bean, but also the Space Hummus Experiment. Undertaken by Israeli researchers as a means to create fresh food in space, the experiment saw the successful germination of a majority of the 28 chickpea seeds sent to the International Space Station earlier this year. Done by SpaceIL along with scientists and engineers from Israel and Stanford University, the experiment ensured that chickpeas too joined NASA’s list of space-grown foods that today includes three types of lettuce, Chinese cabbage, mizuna mustard, red Russian kale and zinnia flowers on the space station.