Chickpeas, an Armenian Staple
Is there a more nearly perfect food than the chickpea?
(No fair if you answered “ice cream.” That’s just too easy!)
Really, it’s hard to think of anything so nutritious that can be prepared in so many delicious ways, or just gobbled down all by itself.
No matter what region or village, the Armenian menu features chickpeas in every imaginable form: floating in soups, nestled in salads and even shaped into a main dish centerpiece in place of meat.
Also known as garbanzo beans, chickpeas are siser to Armenians and ceci to Italians, from the Latin ciser arietinum. The common origin of the name isn’t very appetizing: According to Irina Petrosian’s “Armenian Food: Fact Fiction and Folklore,” the Roman orator Cicero had a wart on his face that resembled a chickpea.
There was undoubtedly an earlier name because chickpeas were ancient even in Cicero’s time. Remains dating back 7,500 years have been found in the Middle East, although the chickpea’s origins may be in North Africa or India.
Maybe even Armenia?
No matter where we discovered or borrowed them, Armenians are bonzo for garbanzos, which is further testimony to our native sense of healthy eating. The luscious legume’s firm flesh is full of fiber. It’s low in fat, and high in protein.
Best of all, the mild and slightly nutty flavor blends well with just about every other vegetable or seasoning in the Armenian pantry.
These days, particularly in America, chickpeas are mostly sold dried or canned. Both are a great convenience, although some food purists shudder at the thought.
(An aside from Doug: We learned this lesson a few years ago while visiting my cousin Arsene Dirkelessian in France. We thought he was joking when he said it took him three days to make hummus. The joke was on us, as we endured three days of “lazy American” lectures as we watched him soak, boil and mash an enormous caldron-full for a community picnic.)
Roasted chickpeas are a favorite Armenian snack that is healthy, filling, and can be enjoyed without guilt. (Robyn remembers: Both of my grandmothers had candy dishes in their living rooms filled with plain and candy-coated roasted chickpeas; plain for the adults who were sipping oghee (raki) — and sugary-sweet coated ones for the children who were trying to sneak a sip of the oghee!)
Making your own roasted chickpea snack is really quite simple, although time-consuming.
It’s best to start with dried chickpeas which are soaked using a long-soaking method, then cooked. To soak, place the dried beans in a large pot with enough water to cover them. Allow to sit 8 to 12 hours, or overnight. When you are ready to cook them, drain the water, then add fresh water to the pot. Cook until the chickpeas have reached the desired tenderness.
Once the chickpeas are cooked, place them in a bowl and toss with one tablespoon of olive oil. Spread the chickpeas on a baking pan that has one-inch sides in a preheated 375 degree F oven. Bake for 40 minutes or until chickpeas are golden brown and crisp.
Remove from oven and sprinkle with a little coarse salt. Allow to cool before serving.
Siserov Sbanakh (Neveeg)
This recipe uses chickpeas and spinach (or Swiss chard) in a simple yet delicious way. It’s traditionally eaten on Christmas Eve (January 5th), along with rice, fish, and yogurt soup (madzoonaboor).
Yield: about 4 servings
- 2 lbs. fresh spinach (or Swiss chard), thoroughly washed and chopped
- 1 medium onion, finely chopped
- 16 oz. can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
- 2-3 tablespoons of tomato sauce
- 1-2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
- Salt (very little), black pepper
- Aleppo red pepper or equivalent (cayenne, or chili pepper), to taste.
Wash and coarsely chop the spinach. Make sure you get all the dirt out. Heat the oil over medium-high heat and sauté the onion until it becomes golden brown — without burning — stirring frequently. Add spinach, chickpeas, tomato sauce, salt, black pepper, and Aleppo red pepper. Cover and simmer on low heat until the spinach is soft. About 15 to 20 minutes.
Note: You can use dried chickpeas instead of canned, soaking and cooking them in advance.
Siserov Kufta (Kufta with chickpeas)
An even-more adventurous chickpea recipe is an old Dikranagerdtsi dish called Siserov Kufta. It’s not served much in contemporary kitchens, so finding a recipe did not come easily.
After much searching, I received an old family recipe from Doug’s cousin Alice Doramajian Bakalian; it was her mother Baidzar’s. A second recipe for Siserov Kufta comes from Alice, as follows:
#1: Siserov Kufta from Baidzar Doramajian, as written by her daughter, Alice Bakalian, with a sense of humor!
- Mint – not too much or it will taste lousy.
- Salt and coriander
- Siser must be soaked for 3 days – at least!
- Each day, water must be changed twice or you are in BIG trouble.
- After soaking comes the grinding with the medium blade on your machine.
- Whatever water accumulates in the machine, pour into ground siser.
- If machine is water tight, you are LUCKYYYYYY!
- If leaking, then I would suggest you pull up a chair and place a pot under the machine to collect the seepage.
- Just thought I’d remind you: Before grinding the siser, prepare a very large pot with briskly boiling water to which 1 ½ Tablespoons of cornstarch have been added.
- To continue: Mix all ingredients together.
- Knead everything with a little water (very little).
- After mixing, you will form mixture into balls the size of your hand — rounded on top, flat on the bottom.
- Put these cute little concoctions into the boiling water. Don’t overcrowd! They should swim around like dolphins.
- While boiling, get yourself an Eberhard #2 pencil. Break off the metal and eraser, then break off the point — making both ends flat.
- Now strip off all the paint on the pencil and you are ready. (If no pencils are around, a bamboo skewer will do.)
- After 20 minutes of boiling, take one of your dolphins out and insert your surgically prepared pencil (or bamboo skewer) into it gently.
- If it slides off, pick up the pieces from the floor and throw it back into this inferno for about 10 minutes. Try this procedure again.
- !!!!!Oh, what a MESS!!!
- When it sticks to the pencil, you hang out a flag and call all the neighbors because you probably forgot to wash and cut the 2 pounds of spinach (scrupulously).
- Certainly they’ll help you! Let them do it in the living room; the kitchen is a disaster area by now!
- !!!!Oh My God, What a MESS!!!!
- By now, your kuftas are done (about 5 hours) and you’re left with this strange gurgling liquid (UGH).
- !!!!!Don’t Panic!!!!!
- Do not drain, I repeat, Do not drain!
- Leave as is.
- I assume you’ve put some sumac in the water and brought it to a boil, then cooled.
- This has been sitting around, festering, while all of this nonsense is going on.
- Drain the sumac and add liquid with a can of tomato paste. Add lemon, to taste, to the gurgle.
- Cool this (uh, I really don’t know what to call it).
- Anyway, cook until spinach is soft — and now you’ve got it made!
- !!!!!Anoush Ugha!!!!! (May It Be Sweet)
- PS: Cut about 2 pounds of onions, very fine. Cook until quite brown in oil. Mince garlic into some water and let it soak for a while. These can be added to each individual dish, if they are so inclined, of course.
Variation: Siserov Kufta with Parsley and Scallions
Instead of placing the kufta (chickpea) balls in the spinach, they can be prepared as follows:
Chop scallions and parsley; mix well into the ground siser along with some flour, dried mint, ground coriander, salt and red pepper. Form into flat patties. Fry in olive oil until done.