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Hummus like you’ve never had it
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BEIRUT: There’s nothing like a slice of gooey, moist chocolate cake. Except one topped with frosted chickpeas. Yes, chickpeas.

Lebanese cuisine is synonymous the world over with hummus. It’s the most famous of chickpea dishes, so much so that it’s called ‘hummus,’ an Arabic word that refers to chickpeas in general. But there’s much more to be made with the legume than a simple dip.

Frosted chickpeas add a sweet – but not too sweet – crunch to a densely rich cake. Though coated in sugar, the chickpeas are still chock-full of protein and fiber (though perhaps not quite enough to justify a second helping.)

There are also more orthodox mezze dishes, such as balila, a chunkier cousin of hummus that comes with a dash of cumin, and creamy chickpea fatteh.

For the main course, there’s tangy msaet, a stew of eggplant, tomatoes and chickpeas, and hearty moghraibieh, with chewy, over-sized couscous, chicken and chickpeas.

During a recent lunch at Beirut’s Tawlet restaurant, cooks from across the country joined forces to create over a dozen dishes using chickpeas, to celebrate the start of the harvest season.

The crop is grown all over Lebanon: in the north, the Chouf and the Bekaa. In the Western Bekaa, where Hasan Akl has his farm, the green chickpea harvest began this week.

Green chickpeas, which taste slightly sweet, similar in a way to fava beans, are picked by hand. The season lasts up to a month, at which point the tender green chickpeas, left to be dried by the sun, become hard and light brown.

“In a month, they naturally become dry and we harvest the dry chickpeas for 15 days. They’re just like the ones sold in stores, but we don’t use chemicals. We don’t even have to water the crops,” says Akl. “We don’t do anything but leave them to grow.”

The plants grow to less than half a meter and the chickpeas grow inside fuzzy pods.

While simple shelling is all that is required to remove the tender green chickpeas, once dry they require a machine, says Akl, who has around 11 acres of chickpeas this year.

“In villages in the Bekaa, no one buys chickpeas from shops,” Akl adds. “They buy them dried from the farmers and they make dishes at home.”

At his home, the family uses mostly dried chickpeas, keeping a cupboard well-stocked through the winter. They usually eat theirs with rice or semolina, and in falafel.

Back at Tawlet, falafel might be the only chickpea dish not on the spread. The cooks use the green chickpeas in an otherwise classic fattoush. The dried chickpeas get their turn in kibbeh and dolma-inspired kale leaves stuffed with rice and tomatoes.

There are even snacks such as quddameh, roasted chickpeas usually served alongside a cold Almaza, and naoumeh, which could best be described as a traditional Lebanese Pixy Stix: crushed chickpeas mixed with sugar and served in a small paper cone.

The treats, popular with children during the 1950s and ’60s, provide both a jolt of energy and a dose of nostalgia. And they’re evidence of the near-endless versatility of the beloved bean.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 22, 2012, on page 2.
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