Canadian pulses are winning fans around the world. They’re also finding followers right here at home.
Canadian chef, cookbook author, and television personality Vikram Vij is only too happy to tell you about his preference for using Saskatchewan-grown lentils and chickpeas in his restaurants. Many Canadians know Vij as one of the dragons on CBC’s Dragons’ Den, but the Indian born chef’s true love is cooking up Indian cuisine with Meeru Dhalwala, at their Vij’s and Rangoli restaurants in Vancouver, BC. Vikram’s third restaurant, My Shanti, is based in South Surrey, BC.
“For me, chickpeas from Saskatchewan are the best,” says Vij. A big supporter of ‘local’ and ‘Canadian’ ingredients, Vij prefers to use Kabuli-type chickpeas grown in Saskatchewan in his restaurants. He notes that chickpeas grown in the province are great for curries.
“They’re firm, have nice texture, soak up flavour, keep their crunch and don’t get mushy like other chickpeas,” he says.
It’s fans like Vij who have helped propel Canada’s pulse industry to lofty heights, says Rachel Kehrig, Director of Communications and Market Promotion for Saskatchewan Pulse Growers. “It’s incredibly important to have people like Vikram talking about pulses. It lends credibility,” says Kehrig. “Vikram is one of the best chefs and these are the ingredients he’s using in his restaurants and he’s sharing how he uses them.”
The vast majority of pulses grown in Canada find a home in export markets such as India, China, Turkey, Bangladesh, and the US, but there is a growing appreciation among Canadians, says Kehrig. “We’re definitely seeing people becoming more aware of the term pulses and being more interested in lentils, peas, chickpeas and beans. People are really interested in their versatility; they’re interested in the different ways they can use them – from traditional uses in soups and stews to things like chickpeas being crisped up and used in salads or even being used as the base of a salad.”
Kehrig says a great deal of the credit for the love shown Saskatchewan pulses by chefs like Vij should go to the plant breeding program at the University of Saskatchewan’s Crop Development Centre (CDC).
We went from being virtually non-existent in the pulse world in the 1970s to becoming one of the world leaders,” says Kehrig. “That’s due in large part to the work of the CDC and their ability to create varieties that are adapted to Saskatchewan soils and improve the yields growers are able to produce.”
CDC chickpea breeder Bunyamin Taran is delighted to hear about Vij’s passion for Saskatchewan chickpeas. Although it’s difficult to confirm the exact chickpea variety Vij uses in his restaurants, it’s likely either CDC Orion or CDC Leader, two newer varieties currently grown in the province. Taran explains that commercial chickpea production in Saskatchewan only started in 1996 and now commands more than 1 million acres. The CDC focuses on breeding short season varieties that provide strong disease resistance, large uniform seed, and high yields.
After meeting the maturity needs of growers, researchers also screen new varieties for cooking and canning qualities and evaluate characteristics such as seed colour, split percentage and brine colour. “We want the product to have a nice creamy colour, no splits and no changing colour after cooking,” explains Taran.
Canada’s Certified and Pedigreed seed systems have also played a critical role in the crop’s success,” says Taran. “That’s how you ensure the genetic purity of the genetic matter you release. It guarantees that the farmer gets the best return on their investment.”
The CDC chickpea program will make 400 to 500 varietal crosses each year to help identify new varieties to meet grower and end user needs. “That’s a big investment so we need some protection,” says Taran. He says the Certified seed system along with Plant Breeders’ Rights protection and having Canada join the UPOV ’91 agreement provides confidence for breeders to invest in developing new and better varieties.
Taran says he can’t say for sure what characteristics make Saskatchewan chickpeas attractive to chefs like Vij, but it’s likely a combination of environment and genetics. “The focus initially was to get the traits that were important to farmers, but we also need to think about who will use the products so we need to improve the traits that will be important for end users like Vikram.”
He feels Saskatchewan’s short growing season plays a role in the unique qualities that end users observe in chickpeas grown in the province. “In Saskatchewan the growing season usually ends when it’s cool and wet, when the temperature is going down,” explains Taran. “Internationally, in India and Australia, or the Middle East, their season ends when it is warm and dry.”
Combine that with the province’s soil profile and the genetics developed by CDC and you have chickpeas that are uniquely Saskatchewan.