‘Chickpea Tohu’, also known as Burmese tofu, is made from chickpeas (or chickpea flour) and makes for a wonderful soy-free tofu substitute. Like tofu, it can be used in soups, salads, curries, and more.

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Despite their similar uses, the technique for making chickpea tohu is much different than soy-based tofu. Soy-based tofu is made from dried soybeans soaked in water, crushed, and boiled. The solution is strained and then curdled, forming a solid mass that is then strained and pressed. Chickpea tohu is made from whole chickpea flour (or ground chickpeas) mixed with water while heated until a creamy, semi-gelatinous mass forms, which solidifies into a solid gel upon cooling.

Preparing chickpea tohu is a lot more straightforward and a little more eco-friendly as well. A more familiar and representative reference to its preparation method is polenta. Similar preparations based on chickpeas are found in other parts of the world, including the French panisse or the Sicilian street food panelle.

Nutritionally, chickpea tohu is a whole food, while soy-based tofu is an enrichment of protein and fat. Compared side by side, chickpea tohu will be somewhat lower in fat and protein while higher in complex carbohydrates and fiber than soy-based tofu.

Generally speaking, chickpeas are a great source of protein, fiber, and complex carbohydrates while low in fat and calories. Not only are they high in B vitamins and folate, but they are also packed with iron, calcium, and magnesium, amongst other vital minerals. The phenomenon at the heart of making this solid tohu gel out of chickpeas is called gelation. More specifically, starch gelatinization.

What is Gelation?

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Contrary to popular belief, the term gelation does not come from the product gelatin (a protein derivative of bone collagen), but it is related. The name “gelatin” was given to a protein after it was found to set water (or liquids) to a semi-solid state resembling ice formation in the sense that it ‘solidified’ water. In Latin, ‘gelatus‘, meaning stiff or frozen, was the term that helped coin the name for gelatin.

Gelation is the phenomenon of turning a liquid into a gel or a solid by the use of polymers. Polymers that can solidify a liquid are collectively known as hydrocolloids.

Gelatinization refers specifically to the reaction that takes place where starches are used to gelate a liquid.

How is Starch Related to Gelatinization?

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Starch is made up of glucose molecules arranged into two types of polymers; amylose and amylopectin. Amylose consists of long linear molecules, which coil up into long helices when dissolved in water. On the other hand, amylopectin is short, branched, and more compact. Amylopectin can interact closely with other amylopectin molecules and become tightly compacted. These starch molecules are found in starch granules within plant cells.

When cold water is added to starch, the starch granules absorb only a small amount. This does not cause a discernible thickening of the liquid. When heating, water molecules move and vibrate with more energy, disrupting the order of the starch granule and causing amylose from the less ordered areas of the granule to leach out, as well as breaking tight amylopectin interactions and forming bonds with it. Essentially it loosens the amylopectin compactness by hydrating it, leading to further granule swelling. This swelling increases pressure on the more organized granule areas, compromising their integrity. At this point in the process, the liquid will have become more viscous due to the swollen starch granules moving less easily through the liquid already filled with amylose molecules.

At around 60-75℃, the granules will finally completely lose their original structure, absorbing a lot of water to swell and become a starch-water mesh. This temperature range is called the gelation range. A final step in the gelatinization of starch occurs as these granules rupture completely, leaking more starch molecules into the surrounding liquid. The long amylose molecules will interact, further extending the meshwork, which traps water and starch granule fragments.

Essentially this is the biochemical definition of gels: water molecules trapped within a meshwork of long polymers. It is what hinders their movement and is what is essentially responsible for the gel holding its shape as opposed to fluid liquid.

Chilling the gelatinized starches further sets the gel. As we cool things down, the molecules within it vibrate less and less until the newly made bonds within the network stabilize the molecules in place.

The longer amylose molecules will form the most extensive interactions among themselves as they have a larger surface area (being linear and long). This translates into further ‘thickening’ where the mass congeals into a solid gel.

What is Chickpea Tohu?

Legume seeds store carbohydrates in the form of starch. Chickpeas contain up to 52 percent starch. Gelatinization of this starch is the process at play in many popular dishes; vegan quiches and pies, Italian farinata, vegan omelets, frittatas, and many more.

Chickpea starch has a very high amylose content in comparison with non-leguminous sources of starch. It, therefore, congeals into a firm gel, which can be cut and reheated without losing its shape, giving us this tofu-like product.

Importance of Understanding the Science Behind the Food:

Food science is a great tool for chefs to understand the food that they are making and how components will react together. Understanding the science allows chefs to make the best food and enables them to manipulate the recipe and modify it to influence the result. For example, adding salt speeds up gelatinization by lowering the temperature of gelation, while sugar impedes gelatinization.

3 Reasons You Should Try Chickpea Tohu:

1. Nutritional: Tohu is made from whole foods. It may have a lower protein content than tofu, but it has fiber which a western diet is often short of.

2. Quick and Easy: It is such an easy preparation method, which requires only a pot and a container (and blender if using whole chickpeas rather than flour) and can be flavored to create a huge versatility in the resulting tohu block.

3. Cost-Effective: Making a block of about 500g (18oz) of chickpea tohu requires only 90g (3.5oz) of chickpea flour, which would total up to $1. This is an equivalent of 3-5 servings (depending on your appetite) and makes for a great ‘make-ahead’ meal prep for the week. In addition, buying chickpea flour is a convenient solution to always have in your pantry, allowing you the freedom of choosing when to make it (just before you plan to consume it) as opposed to being bound to a best-by date carried by fresh tofu which has a specific fridge shelf life.

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