The first time I encountered “popcorn chickpeas” was on a menu. It was offered as a $5 or $6 appetizer a wine bar/restaurant in downtown Ann Arbor. When I ordered it, I wasn’t sure whether to expect the chickpeas to be mixed with popcorn or coated in popcorn or if maybe the chick peas themselves would be puffed like corn pops. And I was initially a little disappointed when I got what looked like just a bowl full of regular old chickpeas. They had clearly been cooked—they were golden brown and mixed with browned bits of garlic. And that’s all there was—no greens, no sauce, not even a garnish; it was almost audaciously simple.
But they turned out to be delicious: a little crisp on the outside, creamy in the middle, garlicky and salty. Addictive. I imagine they’re a little like the fried black eyed peas that Alton Brown chose when he was featured on The Best Thing I Ever Ate.
I inquired about the name, and the server said it was because they “pop” when you cook them in hot oil. So the first time I made them, it was just for the novelty. I had to find out what this popping business was all about.
Obviously, chick peas don’t have a hard shell the way dried corn does, so the explosion isn’t quite as spectacular and doesn’t produce a starchy poof, but as far as I can tell, the reason for the popping is basically the same—the outside of the chickpea is slightly drier and harder than the inside, so moisture inside the peas turns into steam and starts to build up pressure (again, way less pressure than inside a popcorn hull, but basically the same idea). When it reaches the breaking point, it ruptures, which makes a popping sound, and the release of pressure sends it flying.
Aside from being kind of fun to make, they’re such a vast improvement over plain chickpeas that this has become my favorite way to add them to salads or pasta/grain dishes. So I guess this is more of a concept than a recipe—the version below is as adaptable as chick peas themselves. The only constants are cooked chickpeas, enough oil to coat a pan, a clove or two of garlic, and plenty of salt. Serious Eats posted a version from the cookbook The Herbal Kitchen that calls for rosemary. You could dress them up even more with a blend of spices like chili powder, cumin, and ground ginger. Or you could use them to showcase a fancy or flavored salt.
Recipe: Popcorn Chickpeas
- 15 oz can chickpeas or ~2 cups cooked chickpeas
- 1-2 T. olive or peanut oil
- 2-3 cloves garlic
- 1 t. kosher salt
- 3-4 grinds of black pepper
- a sprinkle of fresh lemon juice (optional)
- other herbs and spices, like rosemary, parsley, chili powder, and/or cumin (optional)
1. Drain the chickpeas well.
2. Mince the garlic and chop/grind any herbs or spices, if using.
3. Heat the oil in a large skillet until it shimmers. Add the garlic and toss or stir to coat lightly in the oil.
4. Add the drained chickpeas and cook for 5-10 minutes, shaking the pan or stirring occasionally. They should start to pop after the first couple of minutes. Cook until they’re as browned as you want them.