Foodstuff: Besan (Chickpea Flour)
For those of you who enjoy experimenting with Indian food in your own kitchens, today’s foodstuff feature is a product you will want to have on hand. It is a simple flour, made from what I call ‘Chickpeas’, that is not only gluten-free (which will be a consideration for those sensitive to that particular protein), but also has a very unique flavor. Indeed, there are some Indian culinary delights that just won’t taste right with anything else…
Chickpeas are the legumes you see pictured above. They will quite likely familiar in appearance to most people, even if the name ‘chickpea’ is not. Americans may know them as ‘Garbanzo Beans’, while ‘Chana’, or ‘Bengal Gram’ often crops up in cookery books. The legume, is not exclusive to Indian cuisine of course; they are used in quite a few Italian dishes and, these days, most people have tried the Middle-eastern specialty ‘Hummus’ at least one time or another.
The flour made from the beans is, as one might expect, sometimes called ‘Chickpea flour’ or even ‘Gram flour’ (as it is on the bag in the first picture), but my wife and I have always called it by the common Hindi name ‘Besan’). The flour is often made by milling the raw bean but, sometimes, they are first dry-roasted to add another layer of flavor.
Here, you can see that the flour has a definite yellowish tint to it and almost resembles a pale mustard powder. There is not much of an aroma but if you taste a little right from the bag the unique flavor is immediately apparent. There is a background taste similar to that of dried peas, but there are also very strong highlights which always make me think of fresh pea-shoots that have been quickly flash-fried and eaten straight from the wok. If you would like to get a good idea of how the flour can add to the flavor of cooked foods, try simply dusting some chunks of potato (or any other suitable mild-tasting vegetable) with a little besan and salt and then deep-fry them as a little snack.
Besan can be found in many Middle-eastern or other Asian groceries, and sometimes in Health food places and the like, but you don’t often see it in more mainstream supermarkets. Funnily enough, my local Co-op carries a pretty extensive selection of different flours and grains from Bob’s Red Mill (excellent products, by the way) but never any Chickpea flour that I have seen as yet. Still, Chickpeas themselves are easy to come by and it is possible, in theory at least, to mill your own.
It is possible, using a food processor, followed by a coffee-mill or the like, to produce a passably decent flour and one of the advantages of doing this is that you can first pre-roast the beans to whatever degree you like. In the above picture, you can see the commercial flour on the left with some I milled myself alongside. I first ground about a quarter cup of beans (dry-roasted for several minutes ahead of time) in my food processor to produce a very coarse meal and then gave it a good whizzing in one of my spice/coffee grinder to reduce it further. The result you see above is after a single processing and it is clear that the product is considerable more granular than the commercial flour. One could continue to sift and grind repeatedly and significantly improve the result, but I fear that at some point you hit the wall of diminishing returns. Personally, I can’t see doing this very often without a proper domestic size grain mill.
In any event, Chickpea flour, or Besan, can be used much as can ordinary flour with some limitations. First, it is definitely not neutral in flavor and, secondly, lacking gluten, it is not able to be used for leavened breads or the like. It does make a great flat-bread, however, and lovely crepes or pancakes as well. It is added to stews and curries as a thickener (although it won’t ever replace cornstarch for sheer thickening power) and I have even come across an interesting recipe for a Chickpea Flour Curry, where it features as a primary ingredient.
My favorite use for Besan is as a coating for sautéed foods (it is great dusted on fish before pan-frying), or to make a batter for deep-frying. Last year, I posted a recipe for an Indian Appetizer, Squid Pakora , and lacking Besan at the time, I substituted for it using a mix of rice and wheat flour. Now that I have a supply of the real thing, however, I will be posting some similar dishes in the weeks to come. Stay tuned…