Monday, October 4, 2010

Chickpea Hotcakes

I've recently discovered a new type of food.  It is healthy, cheap, quick and easy to prepare, filling, tasty, and requires no refrigerated ingredients.  And I recently discovered that it is not just one food, but potentially a whole class of foods, a base upon which I can experiment.

The key ingredient is chickpea flour, also known as gram flour or besan.  Unfortunately, this stuff is not in a typical grocery store.  I got mine from an Indian food store, the kind of place that caters to south Asian immigrants.  I do not remember the exact price but I think a 2 pound bag cost about $3.  They would probably also have it in a specialty or health food store (it is a gluten free food), but it would probably cost more.

To make chickpea hotcakes, you basically just mix one cup of the flour with 3/4 cup water, add spices, fry in olive oil, and eat.  Here's a more detailed recipe:

Sift one cup of chickpea flour into a mixing bowl.  If you have a flour sifter, use it, otherwise use a whisk to break up the clumps.
Add in 3/4 cup water and whip the mixture until there is no dry flour and it has the consistency of thin pancake batter.
Add spices: 1/4 teaspoon salt, a dash of pepper, and a mix of of mustard, coriander, tumeric, cumin, and red pepper.  I have a big cheap thing of 'curry powder' that combines the latter five spices, and use about 1/4 teaspoon of it.  Whip the mixture again.

Put a little olive oil into a frying pan* and heat it up.  There should be just enough to evenly cover all of the pan.  Don't use too much, or hot oil will end up on top of the hotcake and mess it up.  Take one third to one half cup of the batter and pour it into the pan, exactly as if you were making pancakes.  The batter will fry and solidify when it hits the oil, leaving liquid on top.  I prefer to tilt the pan so this liquid drains off into the rest of the pan and makes a larger, thinner hotcake that cooks faster.  After about a minute, it will be solid enough to move around.  You'll need to run a spatula under it, but then you will be able to make it slide around the pan to cook more evenly.  After another minute or so, there will be no liquid left and you can flip it.  Cook until it is, as the cliche goes, golden brown.  

Eat them while they are hot.  This recipe will make six medium hotcakes or four large ones, enough to make a meal for two or three normal humans, or one athletic bachelor grad student.

That is the basic recipe.  I recently discovered a new addition.  You can add finely chopped meats and vegetables to the batter before you cook it.  Last weekend, I added canned minced olives and canned shrimp.  Yes, canned shrimp.  My mother gave me a collection of interesting foods for my birthday, and this was part of the stash.  I have no idea where she got it or how much she paid.**  It is the size of a can of tuna, filled with the tiniest shrimp imaginable.  If they were alive, a dozen of them could dance on a quarter.  I only used about a forth of each of the cans.  I mixed them in the batter and then fried up something that is best described as a 'paella pancake'.  It was really good.

With this recipe, you could feed a good meal to ten people for about five dollars, and most of that cost is the canned meat and vegetables.  It makes a fun, unique, exotic food.

This is not just a recipe, it is an entire food idea, like 'stir fry'.  It has so much potential.  People who know more about cooking and spices than I do could probably come up with something really good after a little experimentation.  Minced tomatoes would probably do well, as would onions and peppers.  You'd probably want to use a food processor to get the veggies chopped finely enough for good consistency.  

Another option is to use these things like you would use a tortilla: as a wrap or base for other foods.  They do not have the structural integrity of tortillas, so you'd probably want to go with a quesadilla-like thing rather than a wrap, but it would be good.

I only learned about chickpea flour because of a friend on a gluten free diet.  I got the flour so she could cook her recipes when she visited, and one day I ended up at my apartment with no meal plan, so in a flash of inspiration, I grabbed the flour and tried making the hotcakes for a quick meal.  The first attempt was good, the second was a disaster (too thin batter, too much oil), and I've made it about half a dozen times since, refining the recipe and technique and spice choice.

The last couple of years have taught me just how limited the food experience of most Americans is.  Most of what we eat is some combination of wheat, corn, rice, beef, pork, chicken, cow dairy products, and a few selections of fruits, vegetables, and seafood.  There are entire dietary staples, like cassava and chickpeas, that are completely absent from our diet.  People are getting better at exploring the vast options of fruits and vegetables from around the world, but the basis of our diet is still sorely limited.  

Besan is not expensive fancy stuff.  A tiny little store sells it to immigrants for cheap.  If large American farms produced it and our grocery stores carried it, then it could be about as cheap as normal wheat flour.  The hotcakes are far more convenient than most 'traditional' American food, which typically requires perishable ingredients.  There are probably dozens of things like this that could be incorporated into our diet, letting us live healthier and more fun lives.

Thankfully, we live in a world where such things are available for those who seek them.  Explore and experiment, and enrich your life.

*I have a cast iron skillet that is well-seasoned, well-maintained, and has only been used to cook with olive oil.  It is, as far as I am concerned, the best frying pan in the world.  Nothing has ever stuck to it.  The recipe will probably not be as easy or convenient for those of you who only possess inferior items of cookware, but you are probably a more skilled cook then me so it balances out.

**Probably an ethnic food store, and probably not very much.


NotanEster said...

How'd you come up with the name 'hotcakes'? I still call these Roti, because I learned about it from Indian cuisine. The French call it Socca, and for Italians it's Farinata. The later cuisines tend to make it in BIG pans in the oven though.

You can also make 'chips' with chickpea roti. I've done that when I could not eat corn chips... cook up a mess of rotis/hotcake, cut into pieces, put in oven til dry. Mmmmm crunchy.

Anyone looking for flour... try Indian grocers, Italian food shops, Bob's Red Mill (specialty USA flour in some American groceries), or random ethnic or health food groceries. The Middle Eastern grocery down the road carries some Indian items including besan flour! I have not tried this but it may be possible to use other bean flours. Fava, lentil, etc.

Alleged Wisdom said...

I guess I called them 'hotcakes' for marketing reasons: people have no idea what 'roti' are but they know what a hotcake is and they usually have positive associations with that word. As much as I trash-talk the Marketing discipline, there is some effectiveness in what they do, and I am not above dabbling in the Dark Side when I want to encourage people to try something.

And there is a difference in presentation. Whenever you make roti, they are a little plainer and you let them cool off to use as a wrap or topping for something else. But I eat them hot right out of the frying pan, just like people do with pancakes.

Farinata is a different beast entirely, due to the thickness and the baking giving it a different texture. Even though it is all chickpeas, it is different food, kind of like the difference between pancakes and bread and cake, all made with flour but with a different ingredient mix, cooking method, serving style, and texture.