The chickpea, Cicer arietinum, also known as the garbanzo bean, is a legume harvested for its highly nutritious dry seeds, and which plays an important role in Arab cuisine. As a matter of fact, chickpeas were first cultivated in the Middle East, and spread from this region to other parts of the world (CGIAR).
The chickpea plant grows to about 20-50 cm tall and is characterized by its small, feathery leaves (World Atlas). As a cool season crop, in the Arab world its growing season falls during the winter (Oplinger et al).
Chickpeas can be divided into two main varieties: desi and kabuli. The desi variety is more commonly grown worldwide, and is smaller and darker in color than kabuli, with a thick seed coat that makes them more durable. Kabuli chickpeas are bigger, cream-colored, and have a thinner seed coat (CGIAR).
History of Cultivation
As one of the earliest legumes to be cultivated, chickpeas have quite a remarkable history of cultivation, dating as far back as 7,500 years ago (around 5500 BC!). This figure is based on remains found in southeastern Turkey, where chickpeas are believed to first have been brought into cultivation (World Atlas, Oplinger et al). From Turkey, chickpeas spread throughout the Arab world and other regions, moving west and south along the trade routes that made up the Silk Road. Chickpeas were one of the first crops in ancient Mesopotamia (“Top Food Facts”), and chickpea remnants have been found in excavations at Jericho which reveal that chickpeas have been cultivated and consumed on the Arab Peninsula “longer than there has been pottery” (“History of Hummus”). No wonder then that chickpeas have such significance in terms of food and cultural identity in the modern Arab world!
However, who are the primary cultivators and consumers of chickpeas today? According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, the country which produces the most chickpeas (by far) is India, although Turkey, the original “birthplace” of chickpea cultivation, comes in fourth. The crop is most widely consumed in Southeast Asia, India, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean.
The Arab world is also important when discussing modern chickpea cultivation as the crop’s “center of diversity”. An FAO report from 2000 points out that chickpeas, along with other staples like wheat, barley, and oilseed rape, have their center of diversity in the Near East/North Africa (NENA) region: that is, the Arab world, though not the greatest producer of chickpeas for the global market, is the region where the greatest variety of different types of chickpeas are grown (Seed Policy and Programmes 83). The idea of “centers of diversity” strikes me as especially important to include given that modern industrialized agriculture tends more and more towards the large-scale cultivation of only one or two varieties of any given crop – at the expense of preexisting diversity.
An Affordable, and Nutritious, Option
Why is chickpea so commonly cultivated and in such large quantities? Quite simply, it provides a great deal of nutritional value in a small, and cheap, package! The chickpea is extremely high-value in that although production cost (and hence its price on the market) is relatively low, it is very high-protein, making it an affordable way for people “to improve the nutritional quality of their diets” (CGIAR).
A chickpea grain contains “60-65% carbohydrates, 6% fat, and between 12% and 31% protein” (CGIAR). Note the high percentage of protein: chickpeas contain more protein by percent than any other pulse crop (a legume grown for its dry seeds). Simply from these figures, one can see that chickpeas provide a lot of energy to consumers because of their high amounts of protein and carbohydrates. Nutritionally, the chickpea is also a rich source of fiber, B vitamins, potassium, phosphorous, iron, and antioxidants (CGIAR, Al Shawwa).
Aside from chickpeas’ nutritional advantages, they are cheap to cultivate and store well, making them a high-value choice for a consumer, especially one with a low household income. As legumes, chickpeas obtain as much as 80% of the necessary nitrogen for fertilization through symbiotic nitrogen fixing in the plant’s roots, meaning that farmers do not have to spend much on nitrogen fertilizer, bringing down production costs (CGIAR). Because of the plants’ deep tap roots, chickpeas also produce good yields in drier conditions, which greatly decreases the money and effort the farmer must spend on irrigation (Oplinger et al) – something of critical importance in the Arab world where water resources are limited. Moreover, since the dried chickpea grain is the product, they can be stored for long periods of time without the nutritional value of the chickpea being diminished. Both of these factors bring down prices and make chickpeas a very affordable option for consumers. This has made chickpeas historically a crop popular with the “common people” and they were sold as street food in Ancient Rome (“Top Food Facts”).
The People’s Food
Because of its flavor, high levels of protein, and affordability, the chickpea is central to some of the dishes we might consider emblematic of popular food in the Arab world. I plan on focusing on two of these dishes: hummus and falafel.
The Arabic word for chickpeas is actually “hummus” (حُمُّص) – the term for what English-speakers call “hummus” is actually “hummus bi tahini” (حمص بالطحينة). Hummus bi tahini is best defined as a dip or spread made from cooked, mashed chickpeas blended with tahini, olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, and salt (“Top Food Facts”). Although the exact origins of the dish remain unclear, historians generally attribute hummus to the region of the Levant. Contemporary cookbooks suggest that hummus has existed in one form or another since at least the 13th century: a recipe called “hummus kasa”, calling for chickpeas, tahini, and vinegar, appeared in the 13th century Cairo cookbook Kitab Wasf al-Atima al-Mutada, “The Description of Familiar Food”; another recipe dating from around the same period exists in the medieval Syrian cookbook Kitāb al-Wusla ilā l-habīb, describing a mixture of chickpeas and lemon juice and no tahini (“History of Hummus”). Whatever the specific birthplace of the dish we now know as hummus, it is clear it has been part of Arab cuisine for centuries.
Currently, hummus plays a central role in the cuisines of Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, and Turkey, among others (“History of Hummus”) and has also recently gained popularity across the globe for its flavor and nutritional value, the latter having led to its promotion by nutritionists (“Top Food Facts”). The high protein content of the chickpeas also makes hummus an ideal choice for vegetarians.
The “second most common dish made of chickpeas” (after hummus), falafel are crispy, fried balls of soaked chickpeas, coriander, garlic, cumin, salt and pepper (Galili). Like hummus, falafel is widespread in the Arab world and encompasses a variety of regional variations. In Egypt, for example, fava beans are used instead of chickpeas. According to Israeli falafel-maker Ramzi Totari, “The falafel is part of the tradition in every one of the Middle East countries. Every street corner has a falafel stand on it. We don’t have hamburger stands, we have falafel stands.” The same article notes that falafel as an element of shared cultural identity in the Arab world is “like a common language shared among sometimes fractious nations” (Baba).
But where does falafel come from? Once more, the specific origin is tricky to determine. The word falafel in Arabic (falāfil, فلافل) is the plural of the word for pepper, filfil. However, the origin of the term might lie in a Coptic Egyptian phrase meaning “of many beans” rather than in Arabic (Abouzahr). This is in line with one of the theories of the dish’s origins: ie. that falafel was first invented by the Egyptian Copts using fava beans around 1000 years ago, and then spread to the rest of the region (Galili). Today, falafel has become a popular food internationally.
Food and identity: Israeli dishes?
“Israel’s National Snack”; “an Israeli traditional dish” (Kantor, Nelson & Silva). Such are the terms often used to describe falafel and hummus, especially in Israel itself – terms which not only emphasize the popularity of these dishes in Israel, but claim them as intrinsically Israeli, belonging to Israeli cultural identity. Given the current political situation, especially the Israeli occupation of Palestine, these attitudes have sparked a raging cultural feud between Israel and Arabs who see these dishes as their own.
Who does hummus belong to? Lebanon vs. Israel
“This is my mother’s food. This is my grandfather’s food. What do you mean you’re serving it as your food?” (Aziz Shihab, Palestinian-American cook)
For Palestinians living under Israeli occupation, however, the issue is a deeply personal one. Many see Israel’s appropriation of dishes such as falafel and hummus – as well as Israel self-defining via other aspects of Palestinian folk culture such as folk songs, dances, stories, and clothing (Benvenisti 261) – as another way of claiming Palestinians’ rightful inheritance as their own. According to Ammiel Alcalay, a Jewish professor of Middle Eastern Studies at Queens College, ”it’s total appropriation, and that it’s linked to very concrete things like land and sustenance” (Kantor). The ongoing debates show how important these simple chickpea dishes – and food in general – are in crafting conceptions of national and cultural identity.
The Chickpea in Culture
The chickpea itself, cultivated in the Arab world for thousands of years, naturally plays a significant role in Arab culture. This includes folklore and superstition: İbrahim Sarıçam notes that, historically, the Arabs “used items like pebbles, chickpeas or beans to foretell the future” during the period of “Jahiliyyah” pre-Islam. The Prophet Muhammad opposed such practices of fortune-telling, saying “Do not go to soothsayers” (Sarıçam).
As a common food found in the household, chickpeas could be used as a shared point of cultural reference, and cooking chickpeas as a shared experience. The 13th century poet Rūmī makes use of the practice of boiling chickpeas as a common cultural reference point – something many people could relate to – in order to illustrate a religious moral in this poem:
Look at the chickpeas in the pot, how they keep on jumping up, driven by the fire.
At every instant the chickpeas boil up to the top and let out a hundred cries:
“Why are you tormenting us with fire? Since you showed your appreciation for us by buying us, why do you treat us with contempt?”
The housewife keeps stirring with the ladle: “Now, now! Boil sweetly and do not jump back from the one that made the fire.
I do not cook you because I dislike you: I want to gain taste and savor.
You will become food and then mix with the spirit. You do not suffer tribulation because you are despicable.
Fresh and succulent, you used to drink water in the garden; your water-drinking was for the sake of this fire,”
His Mercy is prior to His Wrath, so that Mercy could acquire a stock-in-trade: existence.
For without pleasure, flesh and skin do not grow. If they do not grow, what can love for the Friend waste away?
Gentleness will come again, asking forgiveness: “Now you have purified yourself and jumped across the stream to safety.”
She says, “Oh chickpeas! You fed in the spring pasture, and now suffering has come as your guest. Receive it well.
So that the guest may return in gratitude and tell of your generosity before the King.
Then in place of benefits, the Benefactor will come; all benefits will envy you.
I am Abraham, you are my son. Place your head before the knife: I saw in a dream that I must sacrifice you.”
Recipe for Hummus
2 cups drained well-cooked or canned chickpeas, cooking liquid reserved if possible
½ cup tahini, with some of its oil
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
2 cloves peeled garlic, or to taste
Juice of 1 lemon, plus more as needed
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon ground cumin or paprika, or to taste, plus a sprinkling for garnish
Chopped fresh parsley leaves for garnish
– Put the chickpeas, tahini, cumin or paprika, oil, garlic and lemon juice in a food processor, sprinkle with salt and pepper and begin to process; add chickpea-cooking liquid or water as needed to produce a smooth purée.
– Taste and adjust seasoning, adding more salt, pepper or lemon juice as needed. Serve, drizzled with some olive oil and sprinkled with a bit of cumin or paprika and some parsley.
- World Atlas
- Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) on chickpeas
- The Prophet Muhammad on Superstitions
- Rumi passage on chickpeas
- Alternative Field Crops Manual, University of Wisconsin-Extension, University of Minnesota (Oplinger et al)
- “8 Secret Superfoods of the Arab World” (Yusra al Shawwa for Arab America)
- “Give Chickpeas a Chance: Why Hummus Unites, and Divides, the Mideast” (Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva for NPR)
- Seed Policy and Programmes in the Near East and North Africa (FAO Report)
- “A History of the Mideast In The Humble Chickpea” (Jodi Kantor for the New York Times)
- Top Food Facts: The History of Hummus
- Sacred Landscape: The Buried History of the Holy Land since 1948, by Meron Benvenisti
- History of Hummus (Bodrum, Mediterranean restaurant)
- Falafel Factsheet (Shooky Galili for YNet News)
- “When it comes to falafel, the flavors of home can vary” (Hana Baba for NPR)
- TeamMaha – Literal Translations and Phrase Explanations; guest post by Hossam Abouzahr
- Chickpeas growing
- Dried chickpeas
- Cooked chickpeas
- Varieties of hummus
- Hummus photo
- Falafel photo
- Hummus in US
- Record-breaking hummus vats