On my recent excursion to Israel, I frequently came across a relation of the green pea called the chickpea (or garbanzo).

Chickpeas originated in the Middle East around 7,000 years ago and were one of the first legumes to be cultivated by man.

Properly prepared,they are highly nutritious and they have many traditional, medicinal, applications.

They have long been considered cholesterol-reducing and in Eastern Asia, are used to help control diabetes. In Chile, babies are fed a cooked chickpea-milk mixture to prevent diarrhoea.

Even Christopher Columbus had a good supply of chickpeas on board his flagship, the Santa Maria, when he sailed to the Caribbean in 1492.

Chickpeas are sandy in colour and have a pleasingly nutty flavour to complement salads, stir-fries and soups.The Israelis use them to make humous and falafel balls irresistible when served in warm pita bread.

The flour of ground chickpeas, also known as Gram Flour, is popular in India for use in pancakes and pastry.

Over the past few years, nutritional emphasis has shifted from starchy carbohydrates towards protein-based foods, e.g.fish, meat, low-fat cheese, eggs, soybeans,nuts and seeds.

Now the heat is on for alternative sources of quality protein that are easy to digest and less allergenic. Enter the chickpea.

Apart from being practical, cheap and versatile, they contain not only high protein values but plenty of fibre, calcium, iron and magnesium too.

Chickpeas are easy to sprout which substantially increases their amount of available vitamins B and C.

Without resorting to genetic engineering,scientists at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem have developed hybrid strains of chickpea plants that contain higher levels of protein, antioxidants and minerals than the original.

According to animal trials, chickpeas have considerable potential to lower the risk of heart disease and cancer.

Research is also currently underway to develop chickpea-based milk powder and baby foods for infants that are unable tolerate dairy or soya.

With a little imagination, the possibilities are endless. Several breakfast and snack-food manufacturers are trying to incorporate chickpeas into breakfast cereals and, if you are feeling sufficiently virtuous, you can mash and form them into chips.

Make sure they are well-soaked and well-cooked (old chickpeas take longer), or for convenience sake, use the canned version.

Any drawbacks? They can make some people a little windy.