This column appeared in the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix on 11 December 2006.
Last week, I was at a Christmas appetizer and wine party to which I took a smoky chickpea dip, when one of the guests declared, "We don’t grow chickpeas in Saskatchewan, do we?" Oh, my dear city girl, Saskatchewan is one of the big chickpea producers of the world. People in India and Lebanon and Spain are eating Saskatchewan chickpeas.
However, chickpeas are a relatively new crop in Saskatchewan, having been introduced on a commercial scale a little more than a decade ago. I didn’t even know what a chickpea plant looked like until one day last summer, I stopped by a mystery field, picked a seed pod, cracked it open and discovered a chickpea inside.
This could give a chuckle to Habeeb Salloum, a Syrian-born Canadian, who might also be saying, "I told you so."
Habeeb grew up on a farm south of Swift Current after his father left the pretty Biqa Valley (now a part of Lebanon) and took a hardscrabble homestead half way around the world. Habeeb was just a baby when he came with his mother in 1925. But even in the depths of the Great Depression, Habeeb and his seven siblings ate well because they grew chickpeas and lentils in their big garden, just as their ancestors had done in Syria since the dawn of civilization.
While the other kids were eating lard sandwiches and salt cod, the Salloum children were dining on chickpeas and yogurt, cracked wheat and pita bread, wild herbs and lamb. "We grew chickpeas and lentils in Saskatchewan when nobody had ever heard of them," says Habeeb. "And now Saskatchewan sells more lentils than anywhere in the world. Imagine that in my lifetime!"
I met Habeeb recently at his home in Toronto, where he has lived most of his life. While farming wasn’t in his blood, and he made a career with Customs Canada, he has not forgotten the frugal and nutritious food of his childhood. He has written a delightful account with stories and recipes called Arab Cooking on a Saskatchewan Homestead, published by the Canadian Plains Research Centre at the University of Regina.
He writes about collecting wild herbs and greens with his mother, who used them instead of traditional Middle Eastern spices. He describes how the family preserved meat and dried yogurt cheese, two very old methods that had sustained Arabic families for millennium.
"Two or three years we had a crop, and my dad would go into town and buy bologna for sandwiches for the threshing crew. And I thought this bologna on white bread was the epitome of food," he recalls with a good laugh. "A few months after I left home, I remembered the food of my mother and the bologna didn’t last very long."
Habeed didn’t learn to cook at his mother’s side. It was later in life, after he had travelled to the Middle East and North Africa, that he started experimenting in the kitchen, trying to recreate the Arabic dishes of his youth. "I started cooking little by little and I got into it. I remembered what my mother used to cook so I replicated her dishes, and now I do them as good or better than she did."
Of course, today he can buy Arabic ingredients in the grocery store. And thanks to Saskatchewan farmers, he can buy chickpeas, lentils and spices grown right here at home.
SMOKEY GARBANZO DIP
1 tsp. Saskatchewan cumin seeds
1 can Saskatchewan garbanzos (also called chickpeas)
2-3 cloves of Saskatchewan garlic, smashed
3 tbsp. fresh lemon juice
1/2 tsp. hot paprika
2 tbsp. olive or Saskatchewan canola oil
fresh Saskatchewan parsley or cilantro
Place the cumin seeds in a hot dry skillet and cook a few minutes until toasted. When cool, grind to a powder in a coffee grinder. Drain the chickpeas, reserving the liquid. Place everything but the chickpea liquid into a blender or food processor. Pulse the ingredients, gradually adding chickpea liquid until the mixture forms a smooth paste. Add salt to taste. Place the dip in a flat bowl, drizzle the edges with a bit more oil and sprinkle with chopped herbs and perhaps a dash of paprika. Serve with toasted bread, pita wedges or crackers.