Besan, or gram flour, is a textural wonder that turns out differently in every recipe. Used in pakora batter along with a touch of rice flour, it gives a golden brown, addictively crispy texture. In khaman dhokla, it takes on the avatar of an airy, soft sponge cake without addition of eggs. In khandvi, you get silky smooth strips holding their shape when rolled up. In kadhi made using buttermilk, besan lends thickness and flavour (unlike corn flour, which thickens without adding any flavour) and prevents the yogurt from splitting. In Mysore pak, when combined with just two other ingredients, ghee and sugar, the taste and mouth feel is nirvana. The same sweet has a hard crunchy variation depending on the recipe route chosen. These are just a few of the dishes in Indian cuisine that besan features in, each one differing entirely in the end result from the other.
There is a bit of confusion on whether chickpea flour and gram flour are the same thing. They are, in fact, different ingredients. The former, obtained from ground white chickpeas, is a coarser powder than gram flour, or besan, made from chana dal (Bengal gram dal), which is a finer powder, almost pasty in consistency. Besan is sometimes intentionally ground coarse for sweets like laddoo.
Many recipes on the internet use these terms interchangeably, but in an Indian recipe, you can always assume it is besan. This is not to say that using one for the other in recipes will not work. Many modern vegan and gluten-free recipes in international cookbooks and on the internet use chickpea flour as an ingredient.
Udupi hotels in Mumbai serve this delightfully tasty snack called tomato “omelet” made without any eggs, where besan is the main ingredient. This spicy “omelet” has lots of chopped tomatoes and onions in a thick besan batter, cooked like a pancake and served with two slices of white bread, soft or toasted.
Most flours have a neutral flavour, lending themselves to both savoury and sweet dishes with equal gusto. Take, for example, wheat flour, which makes hearty parathas as well as atte ka halwa, or rice flour, which is used for a variety of savoury snacks and sweets in south Indian cuisine. Besan has a much stronger flavour profile, yet it turns out to be an excellent ingredient for both sweet and savoury dishes. The aroma of besan roasting in ghee is a starting point for many mouth-watering sweets like laddoo, Mysore pak, halwa, burfis, etc. Besan is used in a number of savoury snacks and dishes in cuisines from the western parts of India.
During my medical college days, I had the opportunity to stay with my friend Dr Surbhi in her Gujarati home for our group study. Her mother, a superb cook, had taken it upon herself to keep us fed with a steady supply of snacks. While my memory of what we studied is a bit hazy, I very clearly remember the besan muthia that aunty made for us. I remember her using the ghar-ghanti in their house (household flour-milling machine) to get freshly ground coarse besan, giving the muthias an unforgettably delicious taste.
Any grain or legume that is ground into flour starts losing freshness rather quickly. Try procuring besan from small stores with a flour mill that grinds it fresh on order or pay attention to the date of packaging. Although the date of grinding the flour may have been well before the date of packaging, it gives some indication of the freshness.
Besan also features in a remedy for a nagging cough and cold. Sheera, or leti, is a popular home remedy in many north Indian households. I learnt about it from my pastry chef friend Kishi Arora’s mum Kanan Bala (@mamaktreats), when she posted a video on this last winter on Instagram. I have started preferring this to turmeric milk. Try it out for a soothing winter nightcap.
Besan ka sheera/Leti
2 tsp ghee
2 tbsp besan
A pinch of turmeric
A pinch of black pepper powder
2 tbsp chopped almonds
2 cups milk
Raw cane sugar to taste
Heat the ghee in a pan, roast besan on a low flame for five-six minutes until aromatic. Add the turmeric, black pepper and chopped almonds. Pour in milk with constant whisking to avoid lumps and pour into cups. Stir in the sugar to your liking. Drink it hot.
Try with coconut oil instead of ghee and plant-based milk for a vegan version.
Besan Katli/Pitor /Gram flour tofu
A similar recipe is used to make tofu from gram flour in Burmese cuisine.
Serves 4 as a snack
1 cup besan
1 tsp red chilli powder
Quarter tsp turmeric powder
A pinch of asafoetida
One and a half tsp salt
Half cup yogurt
2 tsp oil + some more for greasing
2 tsp oil
Half tsp mustard seeds
1 tsp white sesame seeds
Quarter tsp red chilli powder
Grease a small thali (six inches) or a baking tray with a few drops of oil and keep aside. In a bowl, mix all the dry ingredients until well combined. Whisk yogurt well and add to the bowl with one-and-a-half cups water. Heat oil in a heavy-bottomed pan and add the besan mixture to it, stirring continuously until the mixture becomes thick and leaves the sides of the pan. Pour this into the greased tray and smoothen out the surface using wet fingers. Keep aside for 10 minutes until it is set. Cut into squares or diamonds.
The katli can be eaten as it is or tempered with mustard seeds and sesame seeds, air-fried, deep-fried, or added to a gravy to make a curry.
Double Tested is a fortnightly column on vegetarian cooking, highlighting a single ingredient prepared two ways. Nandita Iyer is the author of The Everyday Healthy Vegetarian.