It came as a surprise to me to read that Australia is the world’s largest exporter of chickpeas. But we don’t eat many of them ourselves. And we’re far from being the world’s largest producer. India leads the world in chickpea production but, because it also leads the world in chickpea consumption, most of that crop is consumed at home.
The Australian industry is tiny in comparison to other broad-acre agricultural crops like wheat and barley and was developed much later, despite being recommended to farmers by the Botanist to the Government of New South Wales as early as 1891. “The chick pea has been grown in a small way in this colony, and it has proved to be well adapted to our climate, so that there is no reason why it should not enter on the list of general farm crops,” wrote Fred Turner.
The chickpea was well-known as a garden plant earlier than this. Some called it the “coffee plant”, but in 1884 the Town and Country Journal dismissed it as a coffee substitute, proclaiming that it was “not likely to gain a prominent place among our crops for ‘coffee’ or any other purpose”. It was, nevertheless, recommended to gardeners as an addition to soups and stews and newspapers were publishing recipes as early as 1883.
Despite these early recommendations, the chickpea was neglected for decades. Some research into their culture and breeding was undertaken at the Waite Institute in South Australia during the 1940s but it wasn’t until the 1970s that serious studies began at Wagga Wagga, New South Wales. Although various sources suggest commercial growing of chickpeas began near Goondiwindi in Southern Queensland in the “early 1970s”, other papers (including one by E.H. Knights of the NSW Department of Primary Industries) assert that the first commercial harvest was in 1979.
There are two types of chickpeas grown commercially: the desi variety, which is smaller and darker, and the larger, lighter kabuli variety. The desi variety is preferred on the Indian subcontinent while kabuli chickpeas (called garbanzos in Spanish) are the ones that end up in cans in your local supermarket.
At the end of the 1970s, there was an expanding commercial market in India. Production was, therefore, focused on the desi variety and, today, around 90 per cent of the crop is the desi chickpea. India remained the major market for the Australian product until 2017 when the imposition of a 60% tariff slashed demand. Today, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the United Arab Emirates are the major markets. Around 95 per cent of the crop is exported.
Although the value of Australian chickpea exports in 2022/3 was less than two per cent of the value of wheat exports, the crop remains a significant one for farmers. Production is mainly centred on southern Queensland and northern New South Wales, although there are significant growers in other states. Because chickpeas are legumes that help fix nitrogen in the soil they are useful as a rotation crop. They are also drought-tolerant.
In Australia, we don’t eat a lot of chickpeas. The Australian Women’s Weekly ignored them until 1966 when, among the first recipes, were “Spiced Chick Peas” and “Mexican Chick Peas” (which, oddly, included peeled and diced pineapple). We became more familiar with the legume in the 1970s when we discovered hummus – served in a growing number of Lebanese and Turkish restaurants. Even in 1987, though, The Age felt it needed to explain to readers that hummus was “a mixture of chick peas and a sesame paste called Tahini”.
The central body for the industry, Pulse Australia, would like to see us eating more chickpeas, pointing out that they’re low GI, high in fibre and high in protein. And with the trend towards vegetarian and vegan diets, they might be on a good thing.