The last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar had a Sufi bent of mind. He was a poet and also a great food connoisseur. Even though having a weak constitution and a wrecking treasury, his fondness for good food did not end, so much so that he even fell quite sick after consuming quite a few delicious mangoes all at once!
Even his rotis (Indian breads) were not the simple wheat or other coarse-grain rotis, he was fond of Besan rotis , which were flat, unleavened bread, kneaded with chickpea flour and milk and cooked on a flat skillet. Besan or chickpea is quite multipurpose as it provides food in many forms to both the rich and the poor alike.
Even during the period of recent COVID lockdown, besan was a choice for everyone, be it people with dietary restrictions of gluten-free meals, or a look out for vegetarian sourced proteins, or for food with low glycemic index or for people craving for vegetable pakoras or some desserts.
It’s quite surprising, in spite of being served to Emperors and being so versatile and prevalent, very little is talked about it. It is believed that the chickpea originated in South-Eastern Turkey and adjoining regions near Syria. The desi-channa very closely resembles the one found in archaeological sites as well as wildly grown ones, perhaps the ancestor of the cultivated chickpeas. According to food historian K.T Achaya, in a 400 BC Buddhist text ‘Chanaka’ finds a mention. Though it is still not known when exactly the flour of channa , called ‘besan’ came into existence and became a saleable commodity. But in medieval period in Western India ‘Kadhi’ is commonly prepared by mixing Besan with curd and tempered with asafetida, cumin seeds and mustard seeds.
The dish ‘kadhi’ unifies India and in fact many regions of India have their own variations of the kadhi, very well know versions are Sindhi, Gujarati, Punjabi and Uttar Pradesh. Not very common are ‘mor kuzhambu’ from Tamil Nadu, the ‘Hazara Kadhi’, cooked with chicken and pumpkin, the Haryanvi version is made with ‘Kachri’, a tangy tasting wild melon or in winters with ‘bathua saag’, a green leafy vegetable.
The use of Besan may have been to thicken gravies and curries and maybe that’s how the Kadhi came into existence as opposed to Mughal meat based dishes, where almond paste was used to thicken the gravies, besan may have been introduced much later as an economical substitute. K.T. Achaya notes that an ancient dish called ‘Kadha’ finds mention in Charakha Samita, Sanskrit text on Ayurveda or Indian traditional medicine says that Kadha were sour, soup-like dish using wood apples, sorrel leaves mixed with curd.
A very famous Burmese breakfast soup-like dish called ‘Mohinga’, made with rice noodles and fish sauce uses Besan as a thickening agent. Mohinga became more famed among the working class as it was economical and nutritious too and easily sold as a street food.
During the World War – II, there were several refugees who moved out of Burma and settled in Eastern India bringing ‘Khao suey’, a soup with coconut and clove flavoured noodles and also the besan based Mohinga. Chickpea flour or besan mixed with stock or water along with turmeric, cooked to a thick paste like consistency and set in trays and cut into desired shapes is the Burmese version of tofu called ‘Shan’.
Similarly in the state of Gujarat a lot of snacks like khandvi, dhokla, fafda, Ganthiya use of chickpea flour as the main ingredient.
Long before, when easily available ready to eat foods were not readily available, besan was an important commodity in the pantry. It made life easier when some guests dropped in unexpectedly potato and onion pakoda were always came to rescue. Similarly ladies of the house often made some easy to store snacks like besan sev, and other fried snacks and besan ladoo and barfi which too have a long shelf life.
In the kitchen of the Maharaja of Mysore, Krishnaraja Wodeyar, a chef prepared what is today called Mysore-Pak, a richer version of the besan barfi hurriedly for some unexpected guests, today Mysore-Pak is the most famous delicacy from Mysore.
In the 18th Century chickpeas came to India from Kabul, Afghanistan. ‘Garbanzo beans’ or ‘Kabuli Channa’ is cultivated in the Mediterranean, Southern Europe, North Africa, South America and of course in the Indian Sub-continent. A variety which is hulled and split to make Channa Daal, it is even cultivated in Ethiopia, Mexico and Iran. Though besan is very popular in India but many crepe-like baked dishes are prepared in European countries like France and Italy.
In Liguria, Italy the farinata resembles much like the Indian version of crepes called chilla, which instead of being fried is baked. The farinata is often seasoned with rosemary or simply salt, or if one wants to be a bit extravagant, it can be even eaten with basil pesto. It is said that the farinata was a necessity food and that roman soldiers roasted chickpeas on their swords to make flour.
The besan chilla often made in north India and served with mint and coriander chutney, is a very healthy breakfast dish, much better than the refined flour loafs of bread.