30 December 2010

For the love of the chickpea, the legume that makes being vegan a bit easier

I became acquainted with the chickpea as a young vegetarian teenager scouring my neighborhood in hopes of a change from the monotony of my at the time, boringly mundane food options. Being young and the only vegetarian in my family, finding healthy alternatives of the carnivorous staples in our home proved difficult. Combine this fact with a doctor who not only told me that being a vegetarian was unhealthy, but also that it would cause me harm in the long run, and it is no wonder I begrudgingly began to eat poultry and fish again.

This is a dance that I performed for too many years. Desperately not wanting to eat flesh of any kind, but finding no guidance in how to achieve vegetarianism/veganism in a healthy way I searched out veggie options, most often hitting gold with ethnic cuisine such as Greek, Thai, and Indian. It is from such places that I began my love affair with the chickpea. I kid you not. For far too long I had been relegated to Burger King to order a Whopper with no meat, feeling ashamed to even pull up to the drive-thru window. Not once I found the chickpea though. Instead I began to seek out humble Greek cafes with cozy quarters, Mediterranean ambience, and my choice of chickpea entrees, often called by different names, taking different shapes, but never disappointing and always vegan.

Today chickpeas along with so many others are diet staples that not only make my veganism possible, but gluttonously enjoyable. Call them what you like, chickpeas, garbanzo beans, cece beans; it makes no difference, what is important is that you find them and eat them. The options are limitless. Perhaps known best for its ability to be ground and processed into hummus, a wonderfully tangy dip-like spread; the word hummus actually means chickpea in Arabic and dates back approximately 7,000 years to ancient Egypt. 

Along with hummus the chickpea boasts another Mediterranean favorite, falafel; a fritter type food consisting of ground chickpeas and choice of spices, that is rolled into a ball or patty and then fried in a high-heat oil until golden brown. It is believed that the Copts of Egypt first used falafel as a replacement for meat during lent. And one of my personal favorites is the traditional Indian dish chana saag; chana being the Indian term for chickpea, the dish consists of a hearty blend of cooked chickpeas and fresh spinach in a thick, curry sauce. A large number of Indian recipes are based around the chickpea as the main ingredient and almost any can be prepared as a vegan-friendly version.

A healthy choice in any form, the chickpea is low in saturated fat and sodium and contains no cholesterol. It is a good source of dietary fiber, protein, and copper, and a very good source of folate and manganese. This versatile bean can be purchased both canned and dried and is available all year round. Dried chickpeas can be stored in a cool, dark place for up to twelve months and cooked chickpeas will stay fresh for approximately three days in the refrigerator. For raw food enthusiasts, chickpeas can be sprouted at home and used in the same way. All chickpeas, however prepared, are delicious whole in salads, soups, stews, or even as a snack on their own.

Luckily today as vegetarians and vegans we have more options than ever. With an explosive and ever-growing community of vegetarian and vegan food grocery items, restaurants, cafes, and even doctors encouraging and promoting the health benefits of a plant-based diet people of all ages are finding it easy and downright enjoyable to transition to and maintain healthy, vegetarian and vegan lifestyles. If the chickpea isn’t on your grocery list this week, add it and give it a try, you have much to gain and nothing to lose.

Erica Settino
Erica Settino is the co-founder and executive director of the non-profit organization, Karuna For Animals: Compassion In Action, Inc. A long time vegetarian turned passionate vegan, she works tirelessly to educate others on the countless benefits of adopting a vegan diet. For more information about Erica and her work visit karunaforanimals.com.

Photo credit:cc:flickr.com/photos/doyland