Monday, November 28, 2011

A Brief Glimpse of the Chickpea.

A chickpea mystery presented itself to me recently. The Oxford English Dictionary tells me that the chickpea (Cicer arietinum) is ‘largely used for food in the South of Europe, in Asia, and in Africa.’ It gives the first reference to it in English as being in 1548, or, in its alternative name of ‘garbanzo, ’ since the mid-eighteenth century. What is strange to me is that in spite of it being known in the English-speaking world for several hundred years, there is a serious dearth of recipes for the chickpea in cookery books or newspaper columns until well into the twentieth century. There are only occasional glimpses of this strange foreign pea in nineteenth century newspapers, and I give you a couple for your interest.

The New York Times of December 26 1898, mentioned garbanzos as one of the favourite foods of “Uncle Sam’s New West Indian Possession” – Puerto Rico. The article noted that the ‘natives’ ‘are fond of good living’, and summarised the food situation as ‘Coffee is fine, butter is scarce, garlic a treat, rich sauces favoured, and sweets are a necessary luxury.'

The article goes on to describe some of the local dishes, such as the following, which will serve as our recipe for the day.

Sancocho is the representative dish of the island. It is the Puerto Rican brother of the Spanish olla podrida, and a distant relative of our vegetable soup. It is a soup or stew into whose composition enters a little of everything, especially of the native products. To make it you require beef, ham, salt pork, chicken, sausage, potatoes, corn, sweet potatoes, carrots, turnips, cabbage, garbanzos, beans, green and ripe plantains, hard squash or calabash, onions, garlic, yucca, celery – all boiled together and well seasoned with different kinds of pepper. The question is not so much what they put in, but rather what they do not put in. The Puerto Ricans think so much of this dish that they, punning on the name, they say “St Cocho (San Cocho) is the best saint of them all.”

Australian Town and Country Journal  of 19 April 1884 had this to say on the new crop:

The chick-pea was hardly known in this country till about 20 years ago, when some enterprising person advertised it as the “coffee plant,” and advised everyone to grown his own coffee. ...... These are rather larger than the common peas; they are so strongly wrinkled that they have been compared to ram’s head. This has given the plant its specific name aristinum ... The reputation of the chick-pea as a substitute for coffee has not yet died out, and we are often asked about it. There is no substitute for coffee. It is either coffee or no coffee. Still, for a warm, coloured drink, chick-pea is just as good as roasted rye, brown-bread crumbs, or parched Indian corn – and no better. Any starchy grain, when roasted, will give a coloured infusion, but it is not coffee. As the chick-pea belongs to a warm country, and its yield is small, it is not likely to gain a prominent place among our crops for ‘coffee’ or other purposes.

Quotation for the Day.

Beans are highly nutritious and satisfying, they can also be delicious if and when properly prepared, and they posses over all vegetables the great advantage of being just as good, if not better, when kept waiting, an advantage in the case of people whose disposition or occupation makes it difficult for them to be punctual at mealtime.
Andre Simon (1877-1970)


sesanner said...

Dear Janet . . . After so much media-wide discussion of turkey and turkey leftovers, you are to be commended for presenting "A Brief Glimpse" of any non-turkey food, especially of a tasty, light vegetable protein.

In the very late 1960's, I was pleased to dine on the coast just south of Big Sur, California, U.S. where the house favourite was a garbanzo bean salad. Basically, beans cooked until tender but not mushy, still a touch of crispness. Marinated overnight in vinegar and oil with a lovely green and aromatic presence of fresh tarragon. Probably minced garlic, salt, et al. It must have been delicious: I still admire it after more than four decades.

As to coffee substitutes, the 1884 Australian reporter accurately states my position: it is either coffee or no coffee. Preferably fresh, strong, and poured 50/50 with scalded rich milk.

By the way, your writing is so rich and colorful, I sometimes read choice paragraphs several times all for the literary pleasure. Well done.

Thanks for The Old Foodie. It's a daily luxury here.


The Old Foodie said...

Hi sesanner; thankyou for your kind words. I too have a favourite chickpea salad. It is much requested at family gatherings.It is chickpeas with raisins,in a dressing (almost a marinade) of olive oil with raspberry vinegar, finely shredded lemon rind and a few spring onions, a little cumin and garlic. Marvellous, and it keeps for a few days too.