Chickpeas, also known as garbanzos (amongst many other names), are one of the worlds’ most favourite foods. This legume is highly beneficial across a large range of nutrients, indeed in many countries across Africa, India, South & Central America they form an almost daily staple to the diet. Evidence has been found that chickpeas have formed part of the human diet for over 7500 years.
Many of us easily recognise the roundish pale pea that we use to make dishes with this nutritious legume - the Kabuli - but are less familiar with the small darker pea that can range from green to almost black - the Desi - which is the one used most widely across the globe. These are just two of the many varieties that have been identified through genome sequencing.
One of the major reasons for including chickpeas in the diet is their high protein content. It's a food that contains all the essential amino acids, making it a complete protein. There is some debate about the levels of histidine, one of the essential amino acids, but this is critical only for children. Some studies show that a cup of cooked chickpeas contains up to 50% of RDV of histidine.
This nutrient-dense pulse is notably high in both soluble and insoluble dietary fibre, which assist with maintaining a healthy digestive system and promoting a sense of fullness after eating a meal containing chickpeas. The complex carbohydrate has a low glycaemic index and is rich in amylose, which is associated with keeping insulin levels consistent and preventing blood sugar spikes, so it is an invaluable food for individuals with Type II diabetes.
A little-known digestive fact about chickpeas is that they contain a soluble fibre called raffinose. This is fermented in the gut by a specific type of bacteria, which in turn produces Butyrate, a key fatty acid that helps to reduce inflammation of the gut and support regular movement in the intestines; potentially protecting against colo-rectal cancer.
Other key nutrients of chickpeas are Molybdenum, Folate, Manganese and Copper. A 100g portion of cooked chickpeas contains up to (DV):
· Dietary Fibre – 30%
· Folate – 43%
· Manganese – 52%
· Molybdenum – 167%
· Copper – 39%
· Phosphorous – 24%
Chickpeas contain high levels of phyto-nutrients that not only act as anti-oxidants, but also as anti-inflammatory agents to support many of our organs that suffer from oxidative stress. The anti-oxidants are found in the skin of the chickpea. This is significant as the Desi chickpea has a much thicker skin than the Kabuli variety and therefor holds the potential to contain far higher levels of anti-oxidants.
Chickpeas have been found to be incredibly useful in preventing cardiovascular disease, due to both the high level of the pant sterol, sitosterol which interferes with the absorption of cholesterol, and due to the soluble fibre which helps to reduce LDL in particular and total cholesterol in general.
Unfortunately, the production of chickpeas is being affected by our changing climate as genetic diversity has been reduced over the years. In an effort to improve diversity to give the crop an opportunity to adapt to climate change, scientists are trying to cross breed with a number of wild species. At least 90 species have been identified to date.
Whole chickpeas can be found as dried peas in supermarkets or other stores or they can be readily cooked and canned. They are one of the few vegetables that are not significantly nutritionally depleted in the cooking and canning process and for many people ready cooked chickpeas offer a healthy staple to their diet.
When choosing dried chickpeas, it is important to buy as fresh as possible, as the longer they are stored, the more they dry out, resulting in the need to cook them for longer and this has an impact on their flavour. Like most large pulses, the best way of rehydrating is to soak it only for about 30-60 minutes before cooking as this will help to retain the flavour. Chickpeas left to soak for long periods can taste quite bland.
It's important to sort and clean chickpeas before cooking as it is not uncommon to find bits of grit and dirt with any dried pulse. Check that the pulses do not have splits in the pea or the tell-tale signs of insect activity – little holes or pits in the surface.
Chickpea flour/besan in another excellent way of using chickpeas, but make sure it is fresh and store it in a cool dark place.
Chickpea flour is widely used in Indian and Mediterranean cooking and is often used to make flatbreads such as socca or made into a spicy paste to coat vegetables to make pakoras and bhajis. In Myanmar, the flour is used to make Burmese “tofu”.
The whole chickpeas are frequently used in salads and stews, dhals or curries. They pair well with so many other ingredients that they can be considered a universal food as can be seen from their extensive use across the globe. Their nutrient density combined with how cheap they are makes them a fabulous addition to many dishes. Many countries roast whole chickpeas with spices to produce a flavoursome and easily portable snack.
Raw chickpeas are delicious ground with spices to make falafel or simply tossed into a fresh summer salad with a light dressing. One of the preferred methods of using raw chickpeas is to sprout them and add them to dishes such as sprouted hummus. This helps to remove the anti-nutrients that protect the legume and therefore makes them both easier to digest and improve the bio-availability of nutrients.