What Are Chickpeas?

Chickpeas
Dried chickpeas. Swapnil Kocheta / Getty Images

Chickpeas—also known as garbanzo beans—are versatile legumes used in many Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and Indian cuisines.

Round and tan colored, chickpeas have a mild, nutty flavor and are slightly crunchy even after cooking.

Most famously, chickpeas are the basis for hummus, which is made by soaking and then pureeing the raw chickpeas along with tahini sauce (a sort of peanut butter made from sesame seeds), garlic and lemon juice.

Perhaps second most famously, chickpeas are also the basis for falafel, which is made by again grinding the chickpeas along with parsley, garlic and other spices and seasonings, and then forming the resulting paste into balls or patties which are then deep-fried.

Chickpeas are also widely used in Indian cooking, in curries and such recipes as chana masala.

Chickpea Basics

There are two types of chickpeas: desi and kabuli. Desi contain smaller, darker seeds and have more of a rough coat. Kabuli is a larger, lighter colored bean with a smoother coat. Chickpeas come in a variety of colors—green, black, brown and red, though the most popular and recognized color is beige.

Today, chickpeas are used in a large variety of recipes. By themselves, they can be used in salads, soups or stews, or as a quick snack. In India, where the chickpea is known as "chana," a large number of recipes are based on the legume. The chickpea is the main ingredient in many Middle Eastern dishes, like falafel, where it is ground and shaped into balls, and in hummus, where it is cooked, ground and made into a dip.

Buying and Preparing

You can buy chickpeas fresh, precooked, canned or dried. If you chose dried, you'll need to soak the chickpeas before you can use them. You can use chickpeas for making salads. 

If you buy your chickpeas dry, soak them for 24 hours. To speed the process, try adding a teaspoon of bicarbonate to the water—though doing so may give the chickpeas a bitter flavor. Next, you'll cook the chickpeas for one-and-a-half to three hours or more, depending on the recipe you are using. When the chickpeas are done, they should have a soft and creamy texture. If you use a pressure cooker, you can reduce the cooking time considerably, though you will have to experiment to see how quickly they cook. Here's some more information and tips on soaking chickpeas

Cooked Vs. Soaked Chickpeas

Traditionally when making falafel or hummus, the chickpeas are not cooked but merely soaked to soften them. On the other hand, many recipes for these dishes call for canned chickpeas which are in fact cooked.

When it comes to hummus, which is served in a semi-liquid form anyway, it's fine to use the canned ones if that's your preference. It certainly is a time-saver. But when it comes to falafel, where it's important for the pureed mixture to stick together while frying, the canned version will perform poorly relative to the soaked-but-not-cooked type.

Finally, chickpeas can be difficult to digest for some, but there is a technique, in which the beans are sprouted before processing, that is said to reduce the digestive issue.