And the award for most versatile, most nourishing and best-loved ingredient goes to… the humble chickpea. Berrin Torolsan explores its history and its limitless talent to entertain us in a multitude of different roles
My first encounter with chickpeas was observing them sprout in moist cotton wool for a primary-school homework project. Seeing a bone-dry seed transform into a tiny plant with a life force all of its own was fascinating. We experimented with lentils and beans as well, but my favourite was the chickpea. I don’t know why – perhaps it was that tiny nose, known scientifically as a rostellum, that appealed to me. The seed resembles a ram’s head, hence the Latin name Cicer arietinum, meaning “ram-like chickpea”. Turkey has a sought-after variety with especially large, tasty seeds known, too, as ram’s head (koçbaşı).
Agriculturally, chickpeas demand very little effort, growing in almost every part of the country. Chalky or salty soil, a humid or dry climate – the chickpea isn’t fussy. And its ability, like other legumes, to increase the fertility of the soil by fixing large amounts of nitrogen also endears it to farmers, who commonly grow it in orchards or fields in rotation with other crops. Chickpeas are completely at home in Turkey, one of the world’s largest producers. Planted in April and May, they produce little white or purple flowers, which turn into small pods that ripen for three months, then split open to expose one, two or three small, pea-like seeds.
In 1925 a Russian botanist, Professor Petr Zhukovsky, came to Turkey to collect specimens and seeds for a gene bank in Russia, the brainchild of the Soviet botanist and geneticist Nicolai Ivananovic Vavilov (1887–1943). Back in Leningrad, Zhukovsky published the results of his scientific observations in a groundbreaking book, Agricultural Anatolia, in 1933. He argued that many European cultivars, both cereals and legumes, originated in the gene pool of Anatolia. High on his list was the chickpea.
The recent recovery by Japanese archaeobotanists of chickpea seeds at Tell el Kerk, in northwest Syria, not far from the Turkish border, endorses his theory. Their chickpea hoard – 11 intact seeds, 65 half-seeds and 62 fragments – dates back to the late 10th millennium BC. Cultivation of wild species had begun by the beginning of the Neolithic period over a wide area of western Asia. The chickpea seems to have been domesticated there first before possibly being taken to post-glacial Europe, along with other ancient crops such as fava beans, peas and lentils. Protein-dense pulses were essential to the diet of prehistoric communities, as they are in many parts of the world today. The chickpea also provides valuable minerals such as magnesium, calcium, iron, zinc, phosphorus and selenium, and key vitamins, including B6 and E.
The chickpea has been part of life for thousands of years in Anatolia – nourishing not only populations but their culture and folklore. It even inspired a lovely sand colour, nohudî, which used to be fashionable among the Ottoman elite and whose name derives from nohut, the Turkish word for chickpea. For rich or poor, no celebratory meal was complete without its chickpea pilav – it was a centrepiece at village wedding and urban banquet alike. In 1539 the circumcision of Süleyman the Magnificent’s crown princes Beyazıt and Cihangir prompted two weeks of celebrations all over Istanbul; they included, of course, a pilav with chickpeas, but this one called for 40 kile – about a ton – of chickpeas. The amount of rice required makes the mind boggle.
Yet the chickpea was by no means just for feast days. Reinhold Lubenau, who came
to Constantinople in 1587 as a pharmacist to the Habsburg envoy, remarked on the food markets near the Bedestan: stalls of pulses were piled high with chickpeas,
beans and lentils. The same abundance was seen at the Topkapı, which had many mouths to feed both in the palace and in the city. Imperial kitchen accounts for the end
of the 16th century record the purchase of 20–25,000 kıyye (25–31 tons) of chickpeas, with special mention made of those from Egypt and from Keşan in Thrace.
Today, distinctive, brightly lit food carts offering steaming chickpea pilav are a familiar sight on Istanbul streets, particularly at night. Taxi drivers flock to them. At home, the chickpea is an indispensable winter staple, endlessly versatile: it turns into soups, stews and a filling for dumplings, such as nohutlu mantı, a speciality of Bursa (see Cornucopia 51). Ground into meal, it is made into tasty snacks such as the Arab falafel and humus and the Armenian savoury topik. It even goes into desserts such as aşure (frumenty). But nothing can beat a bowl of hot, satisfying chickpea stew.
RECIPES IN THIS ISSUE
TAVUKLU NOHUT / Chicken with Chickpeas
1 small chicken, quartered
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 large onions, chopped
250g chickpeas (soaked overnight)
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 or 2 small dried chillies (optional)
Writing in 1882 in her book The Housewife, Ayşe Fahriye Hanım notes under “Chickpea Stews” that this dish, an Istanbul winter classic, can be prepared with mutton, turkey or goose. She serves it over toasted bread.
1 Rinse and pat the chicken dry.
2 Heat the olive oil and sauté the onions in a shallow pan until they start to caramelise. Remove the onions and set aside.
3 Add a little extra oil to the pan if needed and stir-fry the chicken until golden all over.
4 Place the chickpeas, onion and chicken in a saucepan. Season with salt and add the chillies whole if using them. Dilute the tomato paste in a glass of water and pour over the contents of the pan. Add more water to cover.
5 Bring to the boil and simmer gently until the chickpeas are soft to the bite and the chicken is cooked (in a pressure cooker allow about 20 minutes).
6 Serve piping hot with a good rustic bread to mop up the tasty sauce.
Other recipes: Nohut Çorbası (Chickpea Soup); Nohutlu İşkembe Yahnisi (Tripe Stew with Chickpeas); Humus (Houmous); Nohut Yahnisi (Chickpea and Mutton Stew); Tavuklu Nohut (Chicken with Chickpeas – see below); Nohutlu Pilav (Chickpea Pilav)
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