When you hear the word chickpea, what’s the first thing you think of? Hummus? Falafel? While chickpeas are a key ingredient for both of these tasty foods, chickpeas have been used for so much more, from treating warts in Ancient Greece to making gluten-free pasta that you can find at the supermarket.
Native to South Europe and India, chickpeas are a staple food of the Middle East, Central Asia, India, East Africa and the Mediterranean basin. Chickpeas come in two varieties: desi chickpeas from India, Iran, Mexico and East Africa, and kabuli chickpeas from Europe, Afghanistan and Chile. In fact, 60% of the world’s supply of chickpeas comes from India alone - that’s equivalent to over 7.8 million tonnes a year!
Faiths and Cultures:
Believed to be one of the earliest grains that humans cultivated, chickpeas have a long cultural history. Archaelogical remains of chickpeas have been found that date back to the Neolithic Middle East around 7500 years ago, where they were believed to have originated along with wheat, barley, lentils and peas.
Chickpeas are quite symbolic in Jewish cultural practices, and are eaten on the Sabbeth after the a son is born and at the third Sabbeth meal. They are also traditionally eaten on Purim, a holiday that commemorates the saving of the Jews from Haman, the prime minister of the Persian Empire. North African and Eastern European Jews often eat chickpeas on Rosh Hasanah, to symbolise their hopes that God’s judgement will be less stern. In Jewish folklore, chickpeas are also eaten to increase fertility, and signify compassion, piety, and vegetarianism.
The leaves of chickpea plants contain a compound oxalic acid which can form a dew, and it’s said that walking through a field of dewy chickpeas will destroy your boots!
Chickpeas have several useful medicinal properties and have been used in traditional medicines across history. In fact, the benefits of eating chickpeas are still being researched today, with studies suggesting that eating chickpeas can be beneficial in weight-loss management and in regulating levels of glucose and insulin. Preliminary studies have also found that people who eat chickpeas have a higher intake of dietary fibre, vitamins A, E and C, folate, potassium and iron.
According to Pliny the Elder, chickpeas were used by the Romans to treat warts by touching a chickpea to each wart during the new moon and then throwing the chickpea backwards, while gout was treated by applying the hot water that leaves and stems were boiled onto the feet. In traditional Iranian medicine, chickpeas were recommended for male infertility, based on the belief that foods that were warm in nature, flatulent and highly nutritious were especially beneficial.
Chickpeas are well-known for causing flatulence. This can be quite uncomfortable and is actually caused by compounds called oligisaccharides (a kind of carbohydrate found in chickpeas) that we can’t break down. When we eat chickpeas, these compounds accumulate in the large intestine, where they are fermented by bacteria. This fermentation process produces carbon dioxide gas and makes us feel bloated and gassy. But don’t put down the hummus just yet, because some research suggests that eating chickpeas and other high-fibre foods is good for maintaining a healthy gut filled with ‘good’ gut bacteria. Plus, eating chickpeas can help with constipation and even reduce the risks of bowel cancer and diabetes.
When it comes to cooking with chickpeas, they can be used in everything from hummus to bread. In Indian cuisine, raw chickpeas are used to make chutney, curries and stews or ground into a flour that can be used to make cake and other sweets. Roasted chickpeas also make for spicy snacks, and are cooked along with red chili, spices, and red gram (also known as pigeon peas) to make a lentil broth called sambhar. Chickpeas are also considered a functional food, a practice of preparing food in different ways to increase its nutritional value, and are often germinated before they are used in salads to increase the amount of iron that can be absorbed.
Plus chickpeas are great sources of protein and fibre, and are low GI. And as a high-protein food, they can be used as an alternative to meat in vegetarian and vegan diets and for populations where protein sources are scarce or where malnutrition is an issue. Chickpeas and other legumes are also ground into a flour and used as an alternative to wheat to make gluten-free products.
Roasted chickpeas have also been used as a coffee substitute, and were cultivated for this reason in Germany from 1800 til 1900. In South Bulgaria, a coffee substitute called leblebii was used during the 1930s.
Chickpeas are a fast-growing annual legume with white or rose-coloured flowers. They grow well in warmer climates, are typically sown in spring and can be harvested after just 40 days. Chickpeas are also beneficial for soil health by fixing nitrogen levels, and are often planted after cereal crops to restore soil health for commercial crops. They can also be used as a companion plant for cabbages to ward off cabbage moth.
However, chickpeas that are grown in cool and humid areas are particularly susceptible to Asochyta blight, a fungal disease that causes the leaves and stems to turn brown and break. While the disease is primarily managed by using fungicides and seed treatments, varieties that are resistant are currently being developed. For more info on growing chickpeas in your own backyard, take a look at this resource from the SBS.