A few years ago, fresh chickpeas started showing up at my farmers’ market in the summer. Little beans tucked inside a fuzzy green pod, they looked like baby edamame. I bought a few and, after shelling them over an episode of Revenge, I discovered they tasted like a crunchy mix of a fresh pea and a garbanzo bean. I experimented with making a pasta sauce out of the fresh chickpeas and some tomatoes, liked the result, and decided that for once I might be ahead of a food trend. A week later, I found pre-packaged fresh chickpea salad in the local branch of my chain grocery store. I was not so ahead of the curve after all.
The sudden appearance of fresh chickpeas at the market did get me wondering about the chickpeas I had been eating out of cans, dried, or—most of the time—in hummus all my life. What was the relationship between these tiny green beans and the more familiar products? This spring, I found out.
At first, my research took me way back in time. Chickpeas—or as they are sometimes known, garbanzo beans—were first domesticated almost 7,000 years ago in Western Asia. From there they spread. Today, they are grown almost everywhere in the world. The earliest hummus recipe we have is from the 13th century, but it’s a good bet people were eating some version of mashed up chickpeas long before then.
Across the world, different cultures have developed many uses for chickpeas. Aside from the now ubiquitous hummus and falafel, dried chickpeas appear in Middle Eastern salads, Spanish tapas, Portuguese soups, Philippine desserts, and Indian dishes like chana masala. Dried chickpea flour is also a common ingredient in a wide range of cuisines. It’s a key ingredient in a traditional French flat bread from Nice, socca, and in the Indian fritters called pakoras.
Although farmers across Europe and Asia have cultivated chickpeas for centuries, it’s only in the last few years that U.S. farmers have truly embraced the crop. In 2012, the American chickpea harvest increased by more than 50 percent from the year before. The rising popularity of hummus has encouraged this rapid growth. Demand for chickpeas has grown to the point that Virginia tobacco farmers are even trying to transition to growing chickpeas as the tobacco market shrinks due to declining cigarette sales!
(But, growing chickpeas in Virginia is not an easy task. Currently, most American chickpeas are grown in the Pacific Northwest, which has a very different climate than Virginia. Virginia’s hot and humid climate leaves chickpea crops susceptible to a fungus that can blight a chickpea crop quickly.)
I spoke with Harbans Bhardwaj, a Professor of Agriculture at Virginia State University, who is working to develop a successful chickpea crop in that humid Virginia climate. Bhardwaj is originally from India, the world’s leader in chickpea production, and he grew up around farmers who planted the crop. When he arrived in Virginia in the 1990s he began to grow chickpeas for personal use. Then, about four years ago, one of the big hummus companies contacted him about trying to develop chickpeas to grow in Virginia’s soil. He’s been working on developing a crop that is resistant to the fungus ever since.
Bhardwaj explained the basics of chickpea farming to me. Chickpeas have a long growing season. The fresh ones are picked when they are still green and in the pod. Dried chickpeas are harvested when they are well on their way to being completely dry on the vine. The plant has to already have withered and turned brown for farmers to pick the pea before allowing the pods to dry the rest of the way. When the pod is fully dry, the seam splits of its own accord and the seeds can be easily harvested. Some larger farmers help this process along by desiccating the crop on the vine before harvest.
Farmers generally sell their chickpeas dry or fresh. It is the dried ones that get cooked and turned into hummus or canned. Canning a chickpea is relatively simple. You can do it yourself using a similar method to industrial chickpea canners. You simply soak the beans (usually overnight), drain and rinse, boil them in fresh water for about 30 minutes, add any salt or spices you want, and can them in sterilized jars with water. (If you are actually trying this at home, be sure to carefully follow instructions on preparing the canning jars before and after you put the chickpeas in to avoid growing some nasty bacteria.)
There is no denying canned chickpeas are useful to have around. They save me time every time I go to make hummus. But, learning that canned chickpeas were really just dried chickpeas someone else rehydrated for me may inspire me to cook up dried chickpeas from scratch on lazy sundays.
Bhardwaj has another mission. He would like to sell Americans on a new variety of chickpeas. The chickpeas that are grown by most American farmers and with which most Americans are familiar are Kabuli chickpeas—these are also the beans also known as garbanzo beans. In India, round tan beans are considered the rich man’s chickpea. The more common variety in India is the Desi chickpea, a smaller brown or sometimes green bean. The Desi chickpea is actually a much heartier bean that can grow in more climates. It’s also healthier, with a higher fiber count and lower glycemic index than the Kabuli bean. After hearing Bhardwaj’s pitch, I have decided to see if I can find some Desi beans to make my own hummus. In the meantime though, it’s nice to know that my graduate student staple meal of hummus, hummus, and more hummus could be reframed as a rich man’s feast.