Hummus has become so ubiquitous you’d think that every chickpea on Earth had been whipped into its service. Not so. The variety used in the dip is kabuli, a large, thin-skinned pulse that turns Armani-beige when dried. It accounts for only 15% of world chickpea production. Desi are smaller, more yellow than beige when dried, and perhaps most familiar in their split form, chana dal. Both breeds of chickpea – or garbanzo beans, as they’re known in America – are green on the stalk and nestle into their pods in pairs.
If spared the hummus treatment, both varieties may be ground into chickpea flour, which largely mills away their differences. Desi flour is called besan or gram. It’s typically packed in faded-yellow paper bags with designs that suggest old posters peeled from a wall in downtown Jodhpur. Besan is used extensively in Indian cooking. It can be whisked up with water and vegetables to make soup, extruded into the crunchy noodles found in Bombay mix and beaten with chilli and spice into a batter for pakoras and bhajis.
Besan is also used in shortbread -like cookies and confectionery. Nibble on a fudge-size cube of mysore pak, a chewy, cashew-topped ladoo or try besan halva, and, even under heavy layers of cardamom and rose water, the earthy bean flavour of chickpea will still be detectable – “The Princess and the Chickpea”? It’s an acquired taste.
Kabuli flour is produced in Italy. There it’s mixed with water and salt, and roasted in oil to make a thin pancake called farinata or simmered, left to set, sliced and fried to make panelle. In both cases, the unadorned flavour of chickpea flour is elevated to heights of unctuous savouriness: like chips and mushy peas in one bite. Why aren’t there farinata stalls in more parts of the world?•