The humble Indian chickpea graduates to next generation food marvel – Gulf News

From a rural staple to a source for plant-based meat to a superfood, a story of chickpeas
What’s the best thing you could find behind library premises? For scores of students who studied at Aligarh University in India, it was undoubtedly a plate of hot spicy chole (cooked chickpeas). Nothing could match the aromatic flavours that ‘Panditji’ (as he was fondly called) added to his preparation. For decades, Panditji set up his stall behind Maulana Azad Library, one of world’s largest and oldest university libraries possessing more than 1.4 million books and rare manuscripts, doling out his mouth-watering servings with effortless precision and innocuous nonchalance. Surrounded by trees and chirping birds, the place provided a perfect setting to unwind after an exhausting reading session in the library. As he tossed onion, chillies and tomatoes with condiments and spices, one could only wait for one’s turn with great self-control.
Panditji’s savoury chole remains etched in memories, as the humble chickpeas take a long journey Westward. Considered a powerhouse of protein and fibre, chickpea is believed to be one of the earliest cultivated legumes with a 10,000-year-old history from Turkey. Historical evidence of chickpeas have been found in Mesolithic caves in France and later in Neolithic sites in Greece.
The modest chickpea attracted the attention of royal dynasties from the Middle East to European rulers. It is mentioned in European ruler Charlemagne’s late eighth text Capitulare de villis. In The Iliad, an epic Greek poem, by Homer compared arrows of Helenus, son of King of Troy, bouncing away like chickpeas.
Chickpeas had an enviable place on the exquisite dining tables of the Mughal rulers in India. Legend has it that when his son Aurangzeb deposed Emperor Shah Jahan, he was allowed to choose only one food. Shah Jahan chose chickpeas because of its nutritional value and cooking versatility.
The chickpea is an important ingredient in Indian, Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisines. Its variants include black gram, white gram, Bengal gram, garbanzo bean and Egyptian pea.
In India, chickpeas have been at the heart of a staple diet. There are linguistic indications that the bigger, whiter chickpea reached India through Kabul in Afghanistan, getting its name Kabuli Chana. The smaller, darker chickpea is called desi or Kaala Chana, and is more indigenous to the country. India now accounts for more than 70 per cent of global chickpea production giving it an almost undeniable right to call the wonder food its own baby.
The ingenuous Indian cook adds chickpeas to hundreds of dishes – curries, salads, stews, and the mouth-watering street foods like chole chaat and chole kulche. Black chickpeas are hulled and split to get gram pulse. In rural India, sattu (gram flour) is a popular energy food often called as the ‘poor man’s protein’.
Chickpeas are incredibly versatile. They can be used canned or roasted, hot or cold, boiled or sprouted, curried or dried. Are used for making – soups, dips, fritters, patties, even cakes and ice creams. It is a key ingredient in hummus and falafel. Ground chickpeas were used as coffee substitute since the 18th century.
As the West increasingly looks towards Asian culinary traditions for evident dietary benefits, chickpea is fast emerging as a superfood. Chickpea flour provides a healthy substitute for wheat and is gaining shelf space in supermarkets. The no-gluten brigade swears by the ‘chickpea pancake’ or the more inventive ‘chickpea pasta’.
Dr Nabilah Khan, PhD in plant pathology, formerly at University of Colorado says, “… chickpea is becoming an important part of the diet of Americans. Since chickpea is an excellent source of protein, it’s a substitute of meat for vegans.” An agricultural scientist herself and a mother of two, she vouches for chickpeas as a regular family food for its nutritional value.
Chickpea has held an important place in southern French cuisine. Socca, a pancake made of chickpea flour is a popular dish from Nice, France. Socca is intertwined with the city’s identity and culture. Traditionally cooked in a wood oven on copper disks, it is a popular food around the lively street markets. It is eaten warm and harmonises well with the warmth of the place.
Companies like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat are surging in this domain. Target has launched its own line of plant-based meat and dairy alternatives. As specialists look beyond the most common options for meat analogues, chickpea is set to disrupt the alternative protein space. Virginia-based Nutriati has commercialised what it claims is the world’s first textured chickpea protein, providing plant-based meat formulators with a non-GMO protein source.
Since 2009, $16 (Dh59) billion has been invested in plant-based protein industry with more than $1 billion invested in plant-based meat between 2017 and 2018. According to research organisation FutureBridge, plant protein market is expected to reach $10.8 (Dh40) billion by 2022, with a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) or the rate of return at 6.7 per cent. That’s big economics for a small pea!
‘Making meat’ out of plant protein powder and shaping it up with emulsifiers and stabilizers is no mean feat. There’s a tricky science behind texture and feel. Initially, plant-based meat was described as crumbly or chalky and nothing close to meat. Pea and soy protein are widely used in plant-based meats but they fair low on emulsifying property. Though slightly expensive, chickpea protein wins over the two in terms of taste and functionality. Being a great stabilizer, it is needed in lesser quantity thereby, offsetting the cost. Due to its neutral taste, it does not require extensive masking with flavours and artificial additives.
Chickpea is a strong contender to replace soy and pea against health and environmental benchmarks. Soy is a common food allergen while chickpea is not. Chickpea is a great source of dietary fibre, important for a healthy digestive system. Apart from protein, chickpeas contain a large number of antioxidants, vitamins and minerals.
Agricultural systems worldwide are facing unprecedented challenges from an increasing demand for food. Fewer people have access to nutritious food. Current crop yields are at risk from climate change. These challenges can undermine the world’s capacity to meet its food needs in the future. At the rate we are going, the world may no longer have any usable topsoil within 60 years. Nowhere is the problem more severe than in water scarce countries. Chickpeas might well be part of the solution.
Chickpeas are an agricultural wonder. They provide a natural organic method of breaking the disease cycle in other rotating crops. Bearing natural germicidal properties, they obviate the need for fungicides and insecticides, foreboding well for a greener environment. With their deep roots, they help restore depleted soil and are powerful nitrogen fixers. They require minimal fertilisers and can grow well with little irrigation. By lowering the environmental cost of agriculture, chickpeas promote healthy and sustainable eating.
It’s not just that we need more food; we need food that’s nutritious as well as resilient to climactic changes, believes Professor Rajeev Varshney of the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) in India. Varshney is a pioneer in genome sequencing and genomics-assisted breeding of legumes, including chickpea. “I wanted to explore the power of genome technology to create better crops in my country. Developing countries are severely impacted by climate change. Chickpeas have the potential to unlock prosperity for small-holder farmers.”
Drought-tolerant chickpeas developed by his team are expected to herald a new agricultural revolution and open avenues for better production.
The popularity of chickpeas is unabated. Western food websites feature a range of chickpea recipes, including curried roast chickpea, chana masala, red pepper hummus, falafel with spicy tomato, spinach and chickpea dal and the hybrid falafel burger. The zing and the tang of Asian and Mediterranean flavours transcend beyond cultures and geographies.
Aligarh now misses ‘Panditji’ and his chole. He passed away a few years’ ago but has left a legacy of great taste and wonderful food memories.

Professor at Aligarh Muslim University, India, and author of Strategic Human Resource Management by Cambridge University Press.
Here is a recipe to making the classic Indian chole.
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