In my North American Ashkenazi house growing up, my mother always cooked arbis at Purim time. The dish is associated with Queen Esther, for whom this was supposedly a mainstay. Why? Because, some Jewish sources say, Queen Esther kept kosher in the court of her non-Jewish husband, King Ahasuerus. Eating this dish nowadays is one way in which Jews remember Queen Esther’s fortitude.
As I recall, this basic and healthy dish of cooked chickpeas took forever to cook, but it was worth it. It had a chewy, nutty kind of taste.
Arbis, like other Jewish foods, has been quite the globetrotter. For example, some Yiddish speakers refer to the dish as nahit, which, according to L.J.G. Van Der Maesen in a 1987 article, is close to the name used in Turkey, Romania, Bulgaria, Iran, Afghanistan and other adjacent former Soviet bloc countries, with arbis actually referring to another legume, peas. However, H. Gams’s 1924 legume study claims that the ancient Greek words for chickpea were orobos and erebinthos, and that these two words are related to the old German word arawiz and sound similar to erbse, the new German word for chickpea.
Besides eating arbis on Purim, traditional Ashkenazi Jews serve this dish at the Shalom Zachar, an after-dinner gathering on the first Friday night following the birth of a baby boy. There is a mourning aspect to this event, as the newborn’s soul, which had once dwelt in the heavenly realm, must now reside inside the earthly, physical body. Hence, arbis is served at this gathering as a food symbolic of the circle of life.
But a different explanation involving a play on Hebrew-Yiddish words goes like this: arbis, the Yiddish word for chickpeas, helps us remember the promise G-d made to Avraham. “I shall multiply [in Hebrew, arbeh] your seed like the stars of the Heavens.” (Genesis 22:17)
There is a Sephardi version of chickpeas, also served on Purim. Iraqi Jews call it sambusak el tawa, or chickpea turnovers. While most recipes call for adding salt and pepper to arbis, nahit or chickpeas, author Claudia Roden, in her book The Book of Jewish Food, suggests serving them as a sweet side dish with sugar or honey. Editors Anne London and Bertha Kahn Bishov also offer a sweet nahit casserole – in their Complete American-Jewish Cookbook recipe, brown sugar is added. Meanwhile, in the Jewish Vegetarian Year Cookbook, authors Roberta Kalechofsy and Rosa Rasiel recommend eating arbis as a Yom Kippur break-the-fast entree containing salt, cumin, green pepper and tomato sauce.
As we read every year, Megillat Esther opens with an assessment of the vastness of King Ahasuerus’s kingdom – it covered areas from India to Ethiopia.
Indian chickpea history goes way back: the earliest occurrence of chickpeas in India dates from 2000 BCE, at Atranjikhera in Uttar Pradesh, according to Van Der Maesen. Moreover, archeologists have discovered Bronze Age (2500–2000 BCE) chickpeas, peas, green gram and black gram inside storage jars at the Harappan site of Farmana, located in the Indian state of Haryana.
The Archeology of Africa: Food, Metal and Towns, edited by Thurstan Shaw, notes that, in the Natchabiet and Laliblea cave excavations near Ethiopia’s Lake Tana, there was evidence of chickpeas, barley and legumes. Significantly, shiro, which is made from powdered chickpeas, is a staple in Ethiopia.
In his book Ancient Canaan and Israel: New Perspectives, Jonathan Michael Golden reports that, during the Early Bronze Age, at Halif Terrace (located in Israel’s northeastern Negev), people were eating chickpeas, possibly with olive oil. Israeli archeobotanists say there was an agricultural revolution during the Neolithic period. Although not the easiest legume to cultivate – the crop can be wiped out by ascochyta blight and needs good drainage in sunny, dry, warm conditions – chickpeas became one of the early domesticated plants. Zohar Kerem, Simcha Lev-Yadun, Avi Gopher, Pnina Weinberg and Shahal Abbo offer an explanation. In a 2007 article, they claim that the cultivators of that period sensed the nutritional benefits of chickpeas. Today, scientists know that chickpeas are rich in tryptophan, an essential amino acid. They can bring about higher ovulation rates, improved infant development, a feeling of satiety, better performance in stressful situations and a lessening of depressive moods.
Indicative of how important chickpeas are to the Mediterranean diet, an international Hummus Day was inaugurated almost six years ago, on May 13. But let’s give arbis the last word: what goes around, comes around. Here’s a recipe.
1 pound uncooked, dry chickpeas
Cold water to cover chickpeas
Salt to taste (added during the cooking process)
Soak the chickpeas 12 to 24 hours in a pot. Drain the water and rinse the chickpeas to get rid of possible lectin, phytic acid and enzyme inhibitors. Return the chickpeas to the pot, adding enough water to cover them, plus another two inches. Total cooking time will be about two hours, but could be up to four hours, depending on what you consider tender or soft. Cook with the pot covered. Skim off the white froth, which early in the cooking might form at the top. Keep the flame low and add water as needed. After 45 minutes, add salt to taste and go back to cooking the chickpeas. When soft enough to eat, drain and spread out on a paper towel to dry. Sprinkle with salt. May be served hot or cold.
Deborah Rubin Fields is an Israel-based features writer. She is also the author of Take a Peek Inside: A Child’s Guide to Radiology Exams, published in English, Hebrew and Arabic.