The best hummus I’ve ever had was at a tiny, hole-in-the-wall Lebanese restaurant called Evelyn’s in New Brunswick, New Jersey, where I went to school for a time, now many years ago. This place was my first introduction to the glory of Middle Eastern food, with its hummus topped with a glistening pool of extra virgin olive oil and its fatush salad, complete with crispy, fresh pita breads. I didn’t realize it at the time, but part of what makes Lebanese and other Middle Eastern cuisines so fantastic is their ability to transform humble ingredients like chickpeas into something extraordinary, from creamy hummus to hearty stews. I’ve since moved away from New Jersey, but Evelyn’s hummus has lived on as the gold standard in my memory.
A Brief History
The wild ancestors of chickpeas are native to western Asia. According to The Domestication of Plants in the Old World, the domesticated types of the pulse are most closely related to wild varieties found in southeastern Turkey. The earliest archeological evidence for human consumption of the legume date to between 8,000 and 10,000 BCE, from archaeological sites scattered across parts of Turkey and northern Syria. Scientists think that some of these sites represent evidence of wild-harvested chickpeas, but other sites confirm the domestication of the plant (archeologists can tell this by the size and shape of the seed and its coat). This makes chickpeas, along with lentils and peas, one of the oldest cultivated plants in existence. From their beginnings as a foodstuff in Syria and Turkey, the plant spread other parts of the Middle East (Israel, Jordan), the Mediterranean (Egypt, North Africa) and to India. Both the Ancient Greeks and Romans ate them. According to the Oxford Companion to Food, chickpeas were poor-people food, and both Greek and Roman writers noted the legume’s tendency to cause flatulence.
- The botanical name for chickpeas, Cicer arietinum, refers to Aries (the ram), in reference to the legume’s supposed resemblance to a ram’s head. (The Egyptians thought the seeds looked more bird-of-prey-ish, calling them “hawk-faces.”)
- More fun with linguistics: cicer is the Latin word for chickpea (hence its genus name), and legend has it that the legume is named after the Roman philosopher Cicero because one of his ancestors had a wart on his face the size and shape of a chickpea. This is hard to prove.
- “Garbanzo,” the legume’s other common name, comes from the Basque language, as this article from Bon Appétit explains.
- The origin of hummus, the now-ubiquitous chickpea dip, is hotly contested and may be getting a bit ugly. Countries claiming to be the birthplace of the dip include Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Greece, Egypt and many others. Same goes for falafel (chickpea fritters), whose culinary origin has become similarly controversial. Most food historians agree that both dishes (probably) originated in Egypt.
Chickpeas (a.k.a. garbanzo beans) are in the Fabaceae (legume) family, related to soybeans, snap beans, peas, peanuts and many others. They are the third most widely grown legume in the world, after soybeans and beans. A cool weather crop, chickpeas grow on plants with large, upright stalks, and form small pods that have one to two chickpeas inside. The fresh green pods (and the fresh seeds inside) are edible, but the vast majority of chickpeas are harvested dried, for long term storage and canning. Chickpea leaves are also edible. India is by far the largest global producer of chickpeas, followed by Australia, Pakistan, Turkey and Myanmar. In the United States, chickpeas are grown in Idaho, Washington State, California and Montana.
Fresh, green chickpeas are in season only fleetingly in the US, from mid- to late spring. Dried chickpeas, are, of course, available year-round, as are canned.
Like most legumes, chickpea plants are nitrogen-fixers (they add nitrogen to the soil), making them less dependent on nitrogen-based chemical fertilizers, so growing chickpeas and other legumes can actually improve soil fertility. In addition, chickpeas are a good choice if you prefer to avoid pesticides. The USDA’s Pesticide Data Program performs pesticide residue testing on samples of various fruits, vegetables and legumes and reports their findings. Their reports from 2010 shows that their samples of canned garbanzos had little to no pesticide residue. If you’re lucky enough to find fresh chickpeas at the farmers’ market, talk to the farmer to find out more about his or her growing practices. (*And check out our Real Food Rule of Thumb, below, for more information.)
Characteristics and What to Look for
Chickpeas can be found fresh, canned, frozen and dried. They are generally divided into two types:
- Kabuli: the kind most commonly seen canned and dried in the US, kabuli chickpeas are large and cream-to-beige colored, with a thin seed coat.
- Desi: according to food scientists Harold McGee, the variety grown in Asia, Iran, Ethiopia and Mexico. Desi chickpeas are smaller than kabuli types, with a thick seed coat and dark color.
Fresh chickpeas are green, and usually found in the pod. Chickpea pods are small (with one to two beans in each pod). Pass on fresh chickpea pods are dried out or that have black or mushy spots on them.
Chickpeas are amazing little nutritional powerhouses. They contain a huge amount of protein, fiber and some fat, making them a great source of energy. The legumes also have a ton of folate, manganese, iron and copper, and are good sources of calcium, Vitamin K, Vitamin B6 and selenium.
What to Do with It and Cooking
Chickpeas play an important role in many cultures of the Mediterranean, Middle East and Africa, including Spain, Italy, Lebanon, Israel, Morocco and Ethiopia (to name just a few). Cooking dried chickpeas is easy – you can soak first to reduce the cooking time, or just stick them on the stove when you’ll be home for an hour or so. (Here’s the how-to. As an aside, I’ve completely stopped soaking my beans overnight: I just go straight to cooking them on the stove and they turn out great.) Dried chickpeas are certainly more economical, and there are canned-food snobs that insist that canned beans are terrible, but for a fast, healthy meal, canned chickpeas can’t be beat. You can also find frozen, cooked chickpeas in the frozen vegetable aisle of many good supermarkets.
Dried, frozen and canned chickpeas can be made into fritters (falafel), ground into hummus, turned into soup or stews, baked into bread, made into a filling salad (see recipe below) or tossed with pasta for a protein-filled, meat-free meal. In India and Italy, chickpeas are turned into flour and made into various fritters, like vegetable pakoras (India) and panelle (Italy). You can roast whole chickpeas in the oven for a crispy, crunchy, addictive (but healthy) snack – you can even make them sweet or savory. Chickpea flour also makes excellent gluten-free flatbreads, and many cuisines make their own version – like the French socca or the Ligurian (Italy) farinata.
Fresh chickpeas can be pan seared in the pod, or steamed whole like edamame. Cooked out of the pod, use them like you’d use any fresh bean or peas.
Stored in a cool, dark place, dried chickpeas will keep for at least a year. Note that, like all dried beans, the older they are, the longer they may take to cook. Fresh green chickpeas are quite perishable – keep them in a paper bag in your crisper for no longer than 3-4 days.
Stretching Your Food Dollar Through Preservation
Chickpea, Sugar Snap and Arugula Salad with Lemon and Garlic
The vegetable bounty of late spring is amazing, with fresh sugar snaps, garlic and greens like arugula showing up at the market alongside strawberries and ramps. This salad makes the most of what spring has to offer, combining the creaminess of chickpeas with the crunchy snap of sugar snap peas, and the refreshing bite of arugula. Of course, lemon and garlic are naturals with all of these flavors, but feel free to substitute orange for the lemon, or green onions for the garlic. I am not a snob about canned chickpeas, but if you prefer to cook your own from scratch, this salad will be that much more delicious.
1 small clove garlic, very finely minced
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1⁄2 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more for blanching the sugar snaps
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 cups sugar snap peas, ends snapped off
2 15-ounce cans chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1 cup baby arugula leaves, cleaned
Zest and juice of half a lemon
3 tablespoon fresh chives, roughly chopped
- In a medium bowl, combine the minced garlic, red wine vinegar and salt. Let sit for 10-15 minutes while you prepare the other ingredients.
- Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add a large pinch of salt and the sugar snaps. Blanch for about 1 minute, then immediately drain and run under cold water until cool. Slice the sugar snaps into slices about 1⁄2 inch wide. Set aside.
- Add the 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil to the vinegar mixture and whisk well until combined.
- In a large bowl, add the chickpeas, sliced sugar snaps and arugula leaves. Toss gently with the dressing mixture, lemon zest and juice and chives. Taste the mixture and add more salt if necessary (some canned beans are saltier than others). Serve immediately.
(*Real Food rule of thumb: We think that first and foremost, in terms of nutrition, people should eat lots of fruits and vegetables whether they are organic or not. The EWG’s guide is a handy list, but we will point out here that the impacts of pesticides are not limited to your ingestion of them – agricultural chemicals also affect farmworkers and local waterways, both good reasons to buy organic, even those vegetables that carry a light pesticide load. Also, it has been demonstrated that produce grown by small-scale farmers, even those who are not certified organic, tends to have a lighter pesticide load than its industrially-produced counterpart, owing to industry’s tendency toward large monocrops.)