Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Popcorn of Sri Lanka: Roasted Chickpeas

Salmon, Arugula Salad with Roasted Chickpeas
As John and I walked out of a Hindu festival in Sri Lanka last summer, carefully stepping around pilgrims with their possessions spread across the sparse grass lawn, a smell stopped us in our tracks.  It smelled like… popcorn?  Surrounded by one hundred thousand Sri Lankans, some who had journeyed by foot over three hundred miles, if we closed our eyes and just breathed deeply through our noses we could have been in an air-conditioned movie theater in Manhattan. 

When it comes to the smell of popcorn, John is Pavlov’s dog.  It took me a few moments to realize we had separated as I followed close behind our guide who was attempting to get us out of the festival before the mass exodus began. 

I called to the guide to stop.  Turning around we found John standing in front of a small street cart. 

“Is that popcorn?” John asked the guide. 

“No, not popcorn. And you cannot eat that.  You will end up in the hospital if you eat that.”

Our guide had been helping us find hoppers, a quintessential Sri Lanka street food for days.  It was completely out of character for him to tell us something from a street cart was not safe to eat.

“But it smells like popcorn!”  John insisted. 

“No.  This is chickpeas.  You cannot eat them because they are boiled in dirty water.  I once took a tourist to the hospital after he ate those.  I am sorry but I cannot let you eat it.”

Reluctantly I pulled John away from the chickpeas that smelled like popcorn. As the Sri Lankans lined up to get these bags of legumes roasted in a wok-like contraption, it was hard to imagine that something that smelled so good and so familiar could make us sick.

Roasted Chickpeas, Cauliflower, and Olives
Since that trip I have come to understand that roasted chickpeas might actually be the equivalent of popcorn for the people of Sri Lanka.  They are almost as simple to make as popcorn, they take well to a variety of seasonings, and here in the US they come free of intestinal destroying bacteria.

What’s more, you don’t even need to use water when making them for yourself, so good are the canned chickpeas one can find these days.  I simply pop open a can, rinse the beans well, season and roast.  Over the next 15 minutes a delicious smell takes over our apartment.  I am transported from my kitchen to the foyer of a movie theater, across oceans to Sri Lanka and finally back to my home, where no dirty water can stand between me and a handful of spicy, roasted chickpeas. 

Spiced, Roasted Chickpeas
Time: 20 minutes

1 can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
3 T. olive oil
½ tsp. smoked paprika
¼ tsp. cayenne
¼ tsp. black pepper
½ tsp. Kosher salt

Preheat oven to 400°F. In a large roasting pan, toss chickpeas with olive oil and all the seasonings.  Roast for 15 minutes, tossing the beans on 2 or 3 occasions during the cooking time.  

Amy Powell is a food and travel writer based in New York City. She is a graduate of Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and the French Culinary Institute. Follow her on Twitter @amymariepowell

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