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How Did Chickpea Flour, A Staple Of Indian Cuisine, Become A Health Food Sensation?

Chickpea flour is gaining attention thanks to its gluten-free binding properties. But the ingredient has been a staple of cooking for Indians, Pakistanis and many others for centuries.
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Chickpea flour is gaining attention thanks to its gluten-free binding properties. But the ingredient has been a staple of cooking for Indians, Pakistanis and many others for centuries.

There's a specific section of my family's fridge that is reserved for the large, seemingly bottomless tub of chickpea flour — or as we and lots of other Indians who also rely on it call it, besan — that my parents keep on hand. We're not gluten-free, nor do we do a lot of baking. Yet chickpea flour shows up everywhere in our food. It's the nutty coating for my mom's green beans spiced with earthy ajwain, the key ingredient in her creamy, tangy, yogurt-based soup, kadhi, and the base for our favorite variety of laddoos, sweet, fudge-like balls flavored with ghee, sugar and nuts.

Across the many regional cuisines in India, chickpea flour is a common denominator: Gujaratis turn it into pudla, thin, savory crepes laced with turmeric and chilies. In Karnataka and Maharashtra, it can be found in jhunka, a spicy porridge. And in Andhra Pradesh, it is the thickener in Senagapindi Kura, an onion-heavy stew. For the country's large vegetarian population, where eggs are often considered non-vegetarian, chickpea flour mixed with water serves as a convincing omelet replacement.

Indians — along with the Nepalese, Pakistanis, Italians, the French, and many others — have been cooking with chickpea flour for centuries. Americans, on the other hand, only seem to have woken up to the ingredient in the last decade or so. And they've woken up in a big way.

It's hard to trace the exact origin of chickpea flour's sudden popularity in the U.S. Anna Stockwell, the senior food editor of the publications Epicurious and Bon Appétit, said she first started seeing chickpea flour around 2009 on gluten-free blogs. Stockwell is gluten-free herself, and was excited to find a recipe for savory chickpea pancakes.

She didn't know much about chickpea flour's culinary heritage, but she was immediately excited. "Its binding power was magic," she recalls. "All you have to do is combine chickpea flour and water, and suddenly you can make flatbread, or fritters or vegetable pancakes." Still, Stockwell saw it as a niche ingredient — something only gluten-free consumers cared about. She wasn't even allowed to call for it in Epicurious recipes.

Slowly but surely, that started to change. In 2010, one of the more popular recipes from Plenty, Yotam Ottolenghi's bestselling cookbook, was a chickpea flour pancake, or socca, as it's known in France, layered with tomatoes and onions. In 2015, food and fitness writer Camilla Saulsbury wrote the popular book The Chickpea Flour Cookbook. That was followed a year later by Chickpea Flour Does It All, by blogger Lindsey Love.

Lani Halliday, the founder of Brutus Bakeshop, a gluten-free Brooklyn bakery, says she noticed a huge uptick in the number of chickpea flour-based, gluten-free sweets available about a decade ago. For baked goods, chickpea flour worked uniquely well, "as it can hold air bubbles and hold moisture," she says. Plus, "it was cheap, it was accessible, and it was versatile."

Halliday launched her bakery in 2015. One of her bestselling items among both gluten-free and non-gluten-free customers was a chocolate cupcake made with chickpea flour.

Stockwell believes the mainstreaming of chickpea flour is directly linked to one company in particular — Banza. The company started producing its chickpea flour-based pasta in 2014, and by 2017, it was in 8,000-plus grocery stores and had raised $8 million in funding. The key to the company's success? It didn't exclusively market itself as a gluten-free product. Instead, it was branded as health food. And it was one of the first alternative pastas that had a smooth, al dente texture, just like the real thing.

"I had friends who had never heard of chickpea flour, but now they eat Banza," Stockwell says. "It's not because they are trying to eat gluten-free but because it's a delicious and higher-protein pasta. It's a substitute for empty carbs."

This year, Epicurious was finally allowed to publish recipes with chickpea flour. Dennis Vaughn, the CEO of Bob's Red Mill, says that in the past five years, chickpea flour has become a clear bestseller among the company's sundry flour options.

"My grocery store doesn't even carry red meat," Stockwell says, "but they carry Bob's Red Mill" chickpea flour.

In many ways, it has been weird to watch this ingredient that has always felt so quotidian to me become so ubiquitous so quickly in the U.S. This is certainly not the first Indian ingredient or dish this has happened to. Consider turmeric, chai, or khichdi, which have all been claimed by the wellness community and food bloggers as their own, often times without giving due credit to Indian cuisine. It baffles me that the vast majority of people I talk to are shocked to hear that chickpea flour has long been a common ingredient in my family's cooking.

On the other hand, it was important to me when I was writing my new cookbook, Indian-ish, that people could find the ingredients for the dishes in their average grocery store. Because chickpea flour is now so common, I could include recipes like those addictive chickpea flour green beans, and the silky, soupy kadhi.

I'm not against chickpea flour entering the mainstream. But I wish that more of the stories I read about it, or the recipes I saw that featured it, didn't frame it as a brand-new discovery, and completely ignore its heritage.

No one culture can "own" an ingredient — I'm literally writing this with a box of Banza chickpea pasta in my kitchen cabinet — but let's not treat food like it exists in a vacuum. There's context for that chickpea flour flatbread you're making for dinner. Don't take it for granted.

Priya Krishna is a food writer who contributes to The New York Times, Bon Appétit, and others. She also serves as one of the hosts of Bon Appétit's video series, From the Test Kitchen. She is the author of the cookbook Indian-ish: Recipes And Antics From A Modern American Family. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @PKgourmet

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Priya Krishna