Neither chicks, nor peas

They may call it the chickpea in the West but Indians know it as our very own channa, partner of the kulcha and mother of besan flour

Updated: Aug 11, 2018 22:54:40

By Vir Sanghvi

Besan is used in the preparation of traditional dishes like pakoras in India (Shutterstock)

Many years ago on a trip to Japan, I watched a master tempura chef at work. Foreigners are fascinated by tempura but Indians are less impressed because we recognise the dish as a descendant (or a cousin) of our own pakoras and bhajiyas.

But there was one aspect of the tempura-cooking process that intrigued me. The batter was kept in a bowl that was suspended in another larger bowl of ice cubes and very cold water. I asked why this was necessary. They explained that the colder the batter, the crisper the tempura. Make the dish with lukewarm batter and you will get soggy or flabby tempura.

I have never seen anyone in India use this technique to make pakoras so I wondered if we were losing out. Would our bhajiyas/pakoras be crisper if we cooled the batter?

The colder the batter, the crisper the tempura ( Shutterstock )

It was the chef Sanjeev Kapoor who set me right. Sanjeev explained that the gluten in the batter behaved differently at very low temperatures and this led to the crispness of the fried tempura.  

Why wouldn’t that work for pakoras?

Well, said Sanjeev, though pakoras and tempura were broadly the same dish, there was one important difference. Tempura was made with wheat flour. It was the gluten content of the wheat that was the key to the texture.

Our pakoras/bhajiyas, on the other hand, were made with besan. And besan, unlike wheat flour, has no gluten content. And so, even if we used very cold batter, it would make no difference to the texture.

Up to that point, I hadn’t thought about how much our food depends on besan. At some intuitive level, we realise that Indian food lies halfway between the food of the Far East and the cuisines of the Middle East. We eat as much rice as the Chinese or the Japanese. But we also eat naans and other breads that are similar to those eaten in Iran or Turkey. Our curries are cousins of similar dishes in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. But our kebabs owe much more to the Middle East.

In many parts of the Middle East, including Egypt, the word for chickpea is hummus, which has now become associated all over the world with a dip ( Shutterstock )

But there is one area where we are firmly aligned with the Middle East: our dependence on besan and our love for the channa, whose flour it is.

Around the 10th century, the chickpea fell out of favour and began to be regarded as the food of the poor

It is rare, if not impossible, to find besan or channa anywhere in the Far East. But in the Middle East, the channa is a staple food and besan is commonly used.

They don’t call it channa (or gram) of course. The Western term is chickpea – a little misleading because no real peas are involved. And in many parts of the Middle East, including Egypt, the word for chickpea is hummus, which has now become associated, all over the world, with a dip.

The dip is made from crushed channa or chickpeas with a little tahini or sesame paste added and it is probably the best known Middle Eastern dish in the world. Another popular West Asian dish, the falafel, is the subject of much controversy. The Israelis regard it as one of their national dishes. This is countered by the Palestinians who claim that the falafel is theirs and that the Israelis stole it from them while they were also stealing their country.

What nobody denies is that the falafel is made from what we would call besan.

One school of thought has it that because the chickpea is so closely associated with North Africa and the Middle East, it must have come to India from there. In fact, we have had chickpeas in India for several centuries before the birth of Christ. And unlike many foods that originated in the Middle East, there are few great Muslim dishes associated with chickpeas in India.

Most great chickpea dishes, including channa bhatura are associated with Hindu communities ( Shutterstock )

In fact, most of the great chickpea/channa dishes – including of course channa bhatura – are usually associated with Hindu communities. And many great Indian vegetarian cuisines – the food of Gujarat, for instance – rely heavily on channa or besan (which Gujaratis call channa no loat and use liberally in such dishes as dhoklas).

There are broadly two kinds of chickpeas. The ones we are most used to in India are small and dark (though they can take on many colours from red to jet black). These are called (all over the world) Desi chickpeas and are descended from an ancient Indian chickpea, which is small and brown. This is still available in India and is usually called kala channa.

The second variety is more common in the Mediterranean region. It is larger, rounder and more smooth-skinned than the Desi channa and we call it the Kabuli Channa presumably because it entered India through Afghanistan.

Most dried beans that we are likely to come across these days originated in the New World. Punjabis may love to claim that rajma-chawal is an ancient dish but the truth is that the rajma bean was discovered in South America by the Spanish and planted in Punjab by the British. Like makki ki roti, another bogusly ancient Punjab delicacy (the British brought American corn to Punjab), nearly all Indian bean dishes are of recent origin. (No, there is no thousand year old rajma tradition in Jammu either.)

But the channa is unusual in being the only bean that Europeans took to the Americas where it was previously unknown. You will find chickpeas (channa) in South America where they are called Garbanzo beans.

Funnily enough, you don’t see many channas on the menu in Europe. This is despite the channa’s classical origins. It was a favourite of the ancient Greeks and turns up in Roman literature. But around the 10th century, the chickpea fell out of favour and began to be regarded as the food of the poor. Chefs stopped using it and it is hard to think of many French or English recipes that use chickpeas.

The popular West Asian dish, the falafel is made from what we would call besan ( Shutterstock )

Where the channa does survive is in regions near North Africa. You find dishes made from chickpea flour (besan) in the South of France. There are crunchy chickpea fries called panisses in Nice and in Southern Italy an even crunchier version of the same dish is called farinata.

So why did the spread of the chickpea halt before Northern Europe? And why did it get no further than India in the East?

I don’t think anyone knows. In the US, which is more open to foreign ingredients than most other countries, kidney beans (from South America) have become part of the diet but chickpeas have rarely made it out of the Middle Eastern section of most menus and food stores. In the Far East, they have a long history of eating rice and rice flour but when they have looked beyond rice in recent decades, they have reached out for wheat not besan or any other chickpea dish.

Only in India has the chickpea continued to grow in influence. It was always popular with thelawallahs and dhaba owners who could not afford to go looking for fresh vegetables every day. Like dal, channas came dried, could be easily rehydrated and turned into tasty dishes.

(Have you ever wondered why so many dhabas offered a basic menu of dal-roti? It was because both could be made without too many fresh or expensive ingredients.)

The spicy chaat-style channa, with kulchas or bhaturas, must be among India’s fastest growing snack foods ( Shutterstock )

My own sense is that besan is falling from favour these days. It still holds on to its place in the Indian kitchen and is used in the preparation of traditional dishes (kadhi, pakoras, etc.) But more and more people are using wheat flour. The kulcha-naan-bhatura-paratha culture uses atta or maida and regards besan as a second class flour.

On the other hand, the channa itself keeps growing in influence. There cannot be a single restaurant serving North Indian food anywhere in India that does not serve a channa dish. And spicy chaat-style channa, either with kulchas or bhaturas must be among India’s fastest growing snack foods.

As a great channa fan myself I welcome the trend but I do wish we would give besan another chance. It is possible I speak as a Gujarati here because our entire snack tradition is based on besan. But I also speak as somebody who avoids gluten. Breads and snacks made with besan get around the gluten-intolerance problem and I believe they are much healthier than wheat breads anyway.

My father used to claim that eating besan reduced your bad cholesterol. He may have been making this up (though I believed him and still do!) to justify his very Gujarati love for gathiya. But I have myself observed how anyone with blood sugar problems or diabetes flourishes on a besan-heavy diet. (Maida has the opposite effect.)

The food of Gujarat relies heavily on channa or besan that’s used liberally in such dishes as dhoklas ( Shutterstock )

Besides, when you eat a pakora, bite into a dhokla or even enjoy a plate of chaat-style channa, it is worth remembering that you are celebrating Indian cuisine’s remarkable take on the chickpeas, a bean that Plato ate, that much of the Middle East’s cuisine is based on.

I love a good falafel and I respect the ingenuity with which many great chickpea dishes have been created around the world.

But given a choice, I will take a tikki-channa any day!

From HT Brunch, August 12, 2018

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First Published: Aug 11, 2018 22:35:01


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