Hummus? That’s just for starters
With its earthy flavour and texture, the versatile chickpea has united foodie cultures around the world, says Diana Henry
During the recent protests against Trump’s travel ban, one placard made me smile: ‘ We gave you hummus,’ it read. ‘Have some respect.’ This chickpea purée has indeed been a gift. I didn’t eat it (or chickpeas in any form) until I came to live in London in the mid-1980s. Now I’m not sure what we snacked on before we discovered hummus. The taste of chickpeas puréed with garlic, olive oil and tahini is as familiar to us as it is to an Egyptian.
The popularity of hummus may have held the chickpea back, though. In my head, chickpeas combined with cumin and sumac, or tossed into salads with pomegranate seeds and heady dressings, were firmly placed in the Middle East. But Arabs took this sturdy little pulse – that looks so like a hazelnut – across the Mediterranean, to Algeria and Morocco, Spain and Portugal. Eventually I ate chickpeas in Spain, in gutsy stews of sausages and smoked paprika, then in Nice, where I fell for socca, the salty chickpeaflour pancake you buy from food trucks. Finally, I ate them in Italy in a combination that surprised me: starch and starch – why would anyone eat pasta with chickpeas? But when I tasted the chickpeas – fried in abundant olive oil with garlic, some tomato purée and a little dried chilli, then tossed with soft tagliatelle – I completely got the point (it’s as much about texture as flavour).
I’m currently in love with what I think of as a kind of Italian hummus: cooked chickpeas mixed with a little stock, tiny dried chillis, roast garlic, soft chunks of ham or bacon and copious amounts of extra-virgin olive oil. This is puréed and served warm, sometimes with crostini, sometimes as a kind of mash for spicy lamb or pork, or with braised chicory or radicchio on top.
Chickpeas are so robust that only serious overcooking will make them fall apart. And tinned is fine by me. I always have plenty in my larder – enough to start my own hummus factory or whip up much more besides.