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The Battle Over the Bean: the Curious Chickpea — Part I

I had always thought of the chickpea as an unassuming bean. I had enjoyed the pleasure of chickpea dishes like hummus and falafel. But until I began digging into its story, I hadn’t realized the strong feelings the lowly legume had aroused. I was astonished to learn that the Roman orator Cicero’s name came from the Latin word for chickpea. His family was not alone: The families of other Roman statesmen  — Fabius, Lentillus, Pisus — were also inspired to name themselves after beans. Nations have vied with each other for the right to claim falafel and hummus as their own.

The chickpea also carries a stigma. I discovered this truth from one of my many journeys to the Ironbound, a Portuguese-Brazilian enclave in Newark, New Jersey, a favorite haunt of mine. On one visit, I stopped for lunch at a bakery/café whose simple country soups, like caldo verde (kale and potato), and egg custard pastries I relished. My curiosity piqued by a new item in the display case, a chickpea and cod salad, I asked a woman standing next to me about the unusual dish. She said that the salad was called Maia-Desfeita, which means “half an insult.” Later, I pieced together the story behind its name. The two unlikely bedfellows represented clashing cultures. The salt cod was a subsistence food for generations of Portuguese. The chickpea, known as the Grao de-bico, or granule with a beak, was associated with the hated Moors who had conquered Portugal and Spain.

Scorned and adored, the chickpea was an ancient crop that sustained many of the early civilizations. The Greek poet Homer evoked the chickpea in a simple rustic setting: “Just as dark-fleshed beans and chickpeas leap off the threshing floor sped by shrill wind and a strong winnower, so bitter arrows ricochet off the breast-plate of noble Menelaus and fly far off.”

Domesticated in the Fertile Crescent more than 10,000 years ago, the wild chickpea was native to southern Turkey and nearby Syria. The legume’s ancestors had disadvantages for the pioneering farmers. The pods, for example, easily burst open, spreading seeds over the soil. Farmers, scholar Jared Diamond suggests, latched on to a “non-popping” mutant from the wild and steadily improved it. They also bred a larger and sturdier seed.

The plant, a two-foot-high bush, sprouted pods whose seeds are the chickpeas we eat. The legume proved invaluable to the early agriculturalists. It thrived in the most marginal soil and produced a high yield. Ideal for hot, dry climates, the plant sank its taproots deep in the ground. A superb nitrogen fixer, the chickpea replenishes the vital resource for future crops. It was also easily sown, ripened fast, and could be stored indefinitely.

Chickpeas were cultivated along with or in rotation with wheat, barley, and rye in the early settlements. Together with livestock — sheep, goats, pigs, cattle — they provided what Jared Diamond calls a “balanced package” of nutrients. The cereals and legumes offered the essential amino acids and proteins. These staples rewarded the population with energy and vitality.

But what led the farmers to pour their energies into growing chickpeas? They had apparently stumbled onto a plant especially rich in tryptophan, which increases the growth of serotonin in the brain, a recent investigation has concluded. The chickpea helped “induce accelerated growth.” The legume diet, they concluded, led to “higher ovulation rates, more frequent births, and better fed infants.”

From their vivid imaginations, the ancients conjured up pictures of the vital bean. Cicer arietinum, the Latin name for chickpea, compared the legume to a ram (aries) with its distinctive curled horns. A papyrus school text found in Egypt called the chickpea “hawk face” because of its beaked appearance

A versatile food, this “poor man’s meat” could be roasted, boiled, salted, pounded into a mash, or made into soup. Cooked with bacon and packed in clay pots for export by the Romans, it was a constituent in what food historian Waverly Root called the first pork and beans. Peasant grub, which kept you healthy and full, the chickpea was a key element in what the Roman poet Horace described as an “economical diet of onions, pulses, and pancakes.”

Eating the bean marked you as a person of low status. In Rome, food historian Ken Albala points out, a “fricti ciceris emptor,” or buyer of roasted chickpeas, was synonymous with someone poor. The chickpea was also demeaning because it was fodder for animals.  In his play, Acharnians, the Greek author Aristophanes praised the legume because it helped fatten pigs. Bean dishes were relegated, in one medieval Middle Eastern recipe collection, to the “Book of the Misers.”

It might have been disparaged, but the chickpea was also touted for its erotic powers. The Roman naturalist Pliny called it the “pea of Venus.” The Greek physician Galen wrote that “it has been believed to stimulate sexual urges at the time as being generative of semen.”

The chickpea was one of the earliest street food delights. Middle Eastern vendors hawked the steaming hot legumes. Spectators in the Roman arenas chewed on chickpeas the way baseball fans munch on peanuts. At Roman festivals, merrymakers tossed chickpeas over their heads.

Throughout Middle Eastern history, merchants have wooed hungry crowds with tasty beans. In Damascus during the Ottoman Empire, vendors selling roasted chickpeas shouted “Ummen-naren” (Mother of two fires). The words broadcast that the wares were well-roasted. In the Syrian city, sellers of fresh green chickpeas beckoned buyers with the call “Like almonds, my malani.” Paper cones of salted chickpeas with a squeeze of lemon juice are a popular Egyptian treat today.

In the early decades of the 20th century, immigrant Jews in New York City eagerly awaited the arrival of vendors selling chickpeas and other street foods. In his memoir, The Walker in the City, the writer Alfred Kazin rhapsodized about “paper spills of hot yellow chickpeas.” “I still hear  these peddlers crying up and down the streets (in Yiddish) ‘Arbes ! Arbes! Hayse gute arbes! Kinder! Kinder! Hayse gute arbes.’ (Chickpeas, Chickpeas. I’ve got good chickpeas! Children! Children! I’ve got good chickpeas.)”

In later years, food writer Arthur Schwartz remembers the Biblical bean being served at Jewish dairy restaurants in New York City: “I remember arbes . . . from Ratner’s and Rappaport’s, the most important dairy restaurants on the Lower East Side. A bowl of chickpeas bursting from their skins, salted and well peppered, was on the table when you sat down, like the pickle bowl at the deli. You ate them with your hands, like nuts.”

Other ethnic cultures were equally attached to the chickpea. One summer evening during one of the weekly festas, saints’ feasts celebrated in Boston’s North End Italian neighborhoods, my wife, Peggy, and I wandered through the throngs of revelers. We watched as the statute of the saint, draped with dollars, was carried through the street. We listened to a raucous band belt out Italian favorites from the fifties. The streets were crowded with food stands. There was the unmistakable smell of fried dough, the cracking sound of cherrystone clams being opened, and the sizzle of sausages, peppers, and onions frying. And, of course, there were salted chickpeas for sale.

The chickpea fritter, the falafel — a fixture of street stands, delis, and sub shops — has become a modern day quintessential street food. Claimed by both the Israelis and the Palestinians, the falafel has become the focus of fierce contention. Its ancestor, the ta’amia, is a fava bean croquette that the Copts, the Egyptian Christian sect, are identified with. They developed the meatless snack, it is said, as a Lenten repast. During this holy period, Copts presented the ta’amia to friends as an act of penance. Gradually, the popularity of the croquette spread beyond the Coptic community. It has an evolved into an Egyptian national street food sold at stands throughout the country.

As the ta’amia migrated from Egypt to other parts of the Middle East, it was reinvented. It was renamed falafel, probably from the Arabic word for spicy, mefelfel. In Palestine, the vegetarian burger was now prepared with chickpeas Instead of fava beans. When Jewish settlers arrived in Palestine in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they discovered that the locals were avid about falafel. Since the familiar Eastern European foods were ill-suited to their new homes, they searched for a different culinary identity. They started borrowing from the Arabic repertoire. “If you were given the choice between falafel and gefilte fish, which would you choose?” Middle East scholar Najwa al-Qattan asked New York Times reporter Jodi Kantor. Since falafel had the aura of peasant food, it also appealed to the early Zionists’ socialist sentiments, Middle East food authority Claudia Roden points out.

The arrival in Israel of Jewish immigrants from Arab nations in the 1950s strengthened falafel’s national standing. Jews from Yemen, in particular, were attracted to the falafel trade. The newcomers “made it possible to incorporate elements like falafel without referring to them as Palestinian,” Rutgers professor Yoel Zerubarel commented to Ms. Kantor.

Falafel’s progress from Arabic snack to what writer Yael Raviv calls a symbol of “Israelness” is now complete. A popular song, “And We Have Falafel,” written in 1958, was a sign of its path toward assimilation. “It used to be when a Jew came to Israel he kissed the ground and gave thanks / Now as soon as he gets off the plane, he has a falafel” was one of its catchy lines. A common postcard sold in Israel has a photograph of a pita stuffed with a falafel that is decorated with the country’s national flag. The card proclaims “Falafel — Israel’s National Snack.” The Israelis have added their own touch to the falafel experience. Shops set up salad bars complete with an array of pickles, turnips, eggplant, and other toppings to garnish the sandwich.

Israel’s bond with falafel, writer Raviv contends, is due to its diverse origins: “The iconic power of falafel for Israelis . . . derived from its ability to serve as a unifying marker for a variety of factions within Israeli society. That it was adopted from the outside and does not ‘belong’ to any particular ethnic group is, in fact, one of the reasons for its success.” Yadiv’s argument notwithstanding, the falafel quarrels persist. Israel’s appropriation of the food still touches a raw nerve among Palestinians, who feel that they have been robbed of a national snack. At a conference of Israelis and Palestinians, Raviv reports, a Palestinian woman exclaimed: “You stole everything else from us, now you want to steal falafel.”

Next month Part II will take up the story of hummus and follow the adventures of the chickpea in India, Spain, and Italy.


Tasting Chickpeas

Amsterdam Falafel (2425 18th St., NW; 202-234-1969). For a good introduction to the Israeli style of falafel, stop by at this shop, which provides a toppings bar of pickles, salads, and sauces to flavor your snack.

Firehook Bakery (1909 Q St., NW; 202-588-9296). This Dupont Circle bakery-café sells a chickpea salad, a nice lunchtime treat.