COOKING FOR THE GRAM (FLOUR)
These are the words that spring to mind when I think of all the things we can do with chickpea flour! If you have East by West or you visit my food blog regularly, you know that this is one of my favourite ingredients to use — as much in sweets as savoury dishes. It can even be used as a beauty treatment, for drying out pimples or as a body scrub!
When shopping for chickpea flour, you may find it under the name “besan,” which is the Hindi, Urdu and Burmese word for the flour of “Bengal gram” (a type of darker chickpea) hence its other name, “gram flour.” Chickpea flour (also known in the West as garbanzo bean flour) is more usually made by grinding chana dal, i.e. split chickpeas. Confused yet? You should be! But to simplify: chickpea flour, garbanzo bean flour, gram flour and besan are practically the same and completely interchangeable. They can be made from roasted or raw beans. Finding this product under the name “gram flour” and “besan” is quite easy in large supermarkets and Asian shops — the search for the same product labelled as chickpea flour will take you online or to health food shops, in which it’s usually organic. You can also grab it from my shop page. So this flour — let’s call it gram flour to make it easier — is EIGHT TIMES cheaper than ground almonds, which are the most common substitute for gluten-free baking, so it’s definitely worth getting a hold of and learning to work with!
When cooking with gram flour, make sure not to taste it (and definitely don’t eat it!) while it’s raw, as it has a grassy flavour at this point. Depending on the method of cooking, it will lend your dish a range of lovely textures — from creamy (use it to thicken soups and stews) too cakey and everything in between (see list above) — and when toasted it takes on a sublimely nutty flavour. Nutritionally, gram flour is such a wonderful substitute for plain flour. It suits plenty of different diet restrictions, since it’s naturally gluten-free and a great source of protein for vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike. This flour has also been linked to a number of other health benefits, helping to lower cholesterol, control diabetes, improve heart health, and many more. It contains a significant amount of iron, folate, magnesium and lots of other micronutrients that are necessary for a balanced diet, or to treat deficiencies. It’s also known to be great for children or breastfeeding mothers.
From an Ayurvedic Doshic perspective, gram flour is pacifying to Pitta and Kapha thanks to its astringent taste, but Vata types shouldn’t overdo it. You can, however, make it much more balancing as a food for Vata by adding spices and/or ghee, serving it moist and with Vata-pacifying Tastes such as sweet, sour and salty.
Kick off your love affair with gram flour by trying the recipes below and stay tuned for more Kichererbsen (The German for chickpeas I learnt which I like to pronounce as “giggly peas!”) recipes.
Ladoos are an Ayurvedic sweet snack. They are the original energy or bliss balls and I like to make them with gram flour, spices, jaggery and sometimes nuts and seeds. I’m a tad lazy when it comes to rolling them and find it much easier to set the mixture in a tray and serve them sliced into shapes. This particular recipe, which consists of toasting the flour to cook it, for a nutty taste, is great for anyone allergic to nuts or wanting a break from nut- and seed-laden snacks.
The same mix I use for these ladoos actually makes a great “shortbread.” It creates the perfect biscuit-y base for both my cardamom millionaires (page 104-5 in East by West) and for my saffron cardamom cottage cheesecake (page 212-3), two lovely Ayurveda-inspired desserts.
Inspired by a trip to the States to make “soft cookies” rather than the crunchy biscuits I grew up with, I decided to team gram flour with plenty of ginger and a few other spices and use the toasting technique to make them taste nutty. The dough for these cookies is so delicious (similar to the ladoos mentioned above), it can be eaten as is, but on baking it in the oven it became the cookie of my dreams — and a great breakfast cookie at that!
3. DHOKLA WITH GREEN CHUTNEY (page 229 in East by West)
Dhokla is originally a Gujarati recipe and the easiest way to describe it is as a steamed savoury cake. These little “cakes” are light as air, sweet-and-sour squares or even diamond shapes, fashioned out of nutritious gram flour, then steamed and spiked with a tempering of green chillies and mustard or splashed with a tasty sweet and sour liquid. With a sponge-like cake consistency, these are lovely as a side or starter for any main course. Dhokla is one of those dishes that wins over whoever tries it with its intriguing flavours.
Pudas, or pudlas as they are known in northern India, are easy Indian-style vegetable pancakes, also known as eggless omelettes. I smothered these simple gram flour bases in a range of different toppings and pizza pudas were born. Parents take note — this is a great way of hiding veggies or at least making them go down a bit easier! Despite the Eastern spices, these pizza pudas team well with Italian toppings, so feel free to experiment with any fresh ingredients you have.
I’m a bit of a banana bread (and muffin!) fan, as I love the caramel flavours of baked banana. I must have created at least six recipes using different gluten-free flours over the past eight years and all are still firm favourites, Only recently did I experiment with a gram flour bread as a contribution to the Bake for Syria cookbook — a beautiful book created to raise money for UNICEF's Children of Syria Appeal. Together with the banana, the chickpea/gram flour creates a moist crumb without the need for eggs, making it suitable for vegans. Paired with ingredients inspired by Syria: cinnamon, dates and Aleppo pepper, it becomes an unusual sweet-savoury bread that’s delicious at any time of day.