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Faina: Fuel for Intense Training

There are many reasons to remove bread out of an athlete’s diet. Toxins, gluten, high glycemic carbohydrates, sugars, and bad oils. Worst of all, commercial bread comes with way too many chemical additives to be consumed by athletes. But there is this craving for bread that needs to be answered. Ok, what do you eat instead of bread?

Ladies and gentlemen, introducing the greatest tasting bread in the history of mankind…Faina! This is the perfect way for athletes to be able to eat flatbread until they feel full, but this time putting real food into the body rather than a dozen synthetic chemicals and high gluten irritants. Faina flatbread is made from highly nutritious finely ground chickpea (also known as garbanzo bean flour, gram flour, or besan) that feeds millions of mouths every day. The reason you probably haven’t heard of it is because it is considered “peasant food” from far-off lands.

Chickpea flour is the basic ingredient of hummus, falafel, and faina. It is the essential food eaten by people from around the world: Greece, Turkey, Lebanon, Israel, North Africa, Morocco, India, Pakistan, the Arabian Peninsula, Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, and much of South America.

Faina is a non-grain flatbread made from dried chickpea flour, water, a dash of salt, and a little olive oil. It is ridiculously easy to prepare, just blend and bake. Each culture has its own version of this flatbread, subtle tastes and not so subtle tastes. You’ll find it listed under several names including faina, socca, farinata, besan, or pudla. This easily digestible nutrient-dense food has none of the synthetic chemical additives or preservatives of bread – faina should be a regular part of an athlete’s diet.

The finished flatbread is filling; its high fiber content completely shuts down hunger. This very flavorful food provides unique quantities of hard-to-find nutrients. Chickpeas and chickpea flour come with thousands of years of dietary history. Mankind has cooked and eaten these legumes since the last of the Pleistocene (stone ages); it has an 11,000 year dietary track record.1 Chickpeas in their many dishes have fueled great building efforts of ancient civilizations with sustained energy and no carbohydrate blood sugar spike.

We know chickpeas were a staple of Ancient Egyptians who passed them on to Greeks and Romans.2  Ancient Greeks were crazy for them long ago and today is the same; they are the treat of the entire Middle East. Chickpea flour is also a major part of the diet of India and Pakistan accounting for a billion mouths to feed. This homemade flatbread is typically the size of a dinner plate and satisfies hunger for hours, perhaps one reason it is a dietary staple of one out of every six humans.

Flatbread delight

Faina [Fah–eee–NAH] is very easy to make, comes out of the oven great every time, and is so versatile. No gluten, no preservatives, and very low antinutrients because they are spooned off in the preparation. Any remaining antinutrients are further diminished by cooking at such high heat.

This flatbread is light with a nutty flavor. It pairs well with the robust flavors of summer: ripe tomatoes, fresh herbs, roasted garlic, sliced onion and peppers of many verities. Lots of hot, fresh ground pepper makes the taste tingle in the mouth long afterward. It is cooked in very hot oven (500º) for about 30 minutes until browned. Faina is crispy, eaten finger-burning hot. It is served cracker-thin, often with rosemary and oregano. This flatbread is eaten plain by the slice and re-heated the next day to have with any meal.

It is the crust for many different kinds of the most flavorful pizza in the world. There are no rules about faina pizza. It is topped with a wide variety of tastes, from Chorizo (sausage) to spinach, to any cheese in sight. Thin sliced onions are almost always served on top of faina pizza, often thin slices of tomato, bell pepper, olives, but never the same sauce as Pizza Hut. You’ll find a variety of sliced peppers, a variety of olives, chunks of ground beef, feta cheese, hard cheddar cheese, or blue cheese. The cheese used is quite different from the standard goo found in commercial pizza. You’ll be amazed at the overwhelming flavor of this homemade pizza.

Argentina is the center of faina pizza universe. They make several dozen kinds of skillet-size pizzas to choose from. My favorite is the Faina Greek pizza you can buy in little pizzerias throughout Buenos Aires. Feta cheese and Kalamata olives are mixed with fresh herbs for a knockout flavor.

The crispy edges of the faina pizza are the prized part. First the faina “pizza dough” is cooked till crisp. Then the toppings are added with a little olive oil to the completed faina and put under the broiler for 3 to 5 minutes. Argentineans and Uruguayans eat it right out of the oven when it is almost on fire.

South America is a cultural mixing pot, proud of its fusion between cultures. The mixture of Arabic, Italian, and Spanish food is unique. Argentina is a land of immigrants who never forgot their heritage but still managed to adapt to their neighbors. Mediterranean people from a multitude of countries emigrated there in droves, and thus brought the favorite foods from their homeland. One of these tastes was the unique flavor of chickpea flour, a little salt, a lot of fresh ground pepper, and a blistering hot oven. Almost every neighborhood adapted faina to their preferences. Perhaps the reason it is so popular is because it is so easy to make and always comes out perfect.

Faina is very common throughout the Mediterranean. There it is called socca, its common Spanish name, or farinata, its Italian name, or even besan, its Middle Eastern name. In Argentina and Uruguay (where most of the population emigrated from the Mediterranean) it is always called faina and is often served with a second layer of faina top of the pizza where it is called horseback, or a caballo.

Faina even gets sandwiched into a calzone-like pizza. Here the round faina flatbread is partially cooked, folded in half along and filled with cheese, olives, peppers, etc. This in then put back into the oven with a little olive oil on top and broiled until crispy.

Faina is a street food especially popular late at night after visiting the bars in Argentina and Uruguay. It is made daily in Argentina at corner bakeries and pizzerias; sort of a cultural identity food the way beignets are to New Orleans or crabcakes are to Baltimore.

Most days in grandma’s kitchen faina is made in cast iron fry pan. Leftovers are reheated for breakfast and lunch. Just like grandma does, it is a good idea to make lots of faina so there are ample leftovers (make double or triple the amount needed). You’ll be set for easy-to-reheat snacks.

Preparation

garbanzo-bean-flour

1 cup                Chickpea flour (AKA garbanzo bean flour, besan)

1 cup                Water

½ tsp                Sea salt

½ tsp                Fresh ground pepper

2 tbsp               Olive oil (for the batter)

1 to 2 tbsp        Coconut oil (for the pan)

½ tsp                Crushed rosemary (optional)

The key to making great faina is to let the batter sit for several hours. In a large bowl, thoroughly whisk the water and chickpea flour, and then let it sit over night or most of the day. After several hours it will bubble on top, which is easy to spoon off at the last minute. This is the active phytic acid and antinutrients that you remove to improve the taste and its health benefits.

After spooning off the bubbles, whisk in the salt and pepper. Some people insist on ground rosemary and oregano here, some prefer a lot of fresh ground pepper. Add the olive oil to the batter, whisk it all together, and then set it aside.

The standard home method is with the use of a big cast iron skillet. It can also be made in a big pizza plan or large cookie tray. The oven is heated to 500º, and then the iron skillet or pan is put into the oven to heat up. After about 10 minutes it will be very hot.

Here is when the oil is added to the pan which is put back in the oven for five minutes. I prefer to use two tablespoons of coconut oil because it doesn’t smoke and oxidize like olive oil. When the oil is very hot, pour the batter into the skillet or pan, put it in the middle of the oven, and wait about half an hour.

For pizza it is the same operation to make the flatbread crust. Cook the faina, spread on the toppings, drizzle a little olive oil, then plop it back in for a few minutes. For a calzone, the same flatbread crust is cooked about 15 – 20 minutes, spread the ingredients over half the crust so it can be folded over, then back in the oven for 10 minutes.

Why faina is great for athletes

Get more nutrient punch per bite of food. Walk away from the table full without stuffing yourself with the wrong stuff. Instead, eat a great source of fiber, iron, phosphorus, zinc, potassium, magnesium, copper, foliate, thiamine, riboflavin and vitamin B-6. Unlike swallowing pills or following some tasteless diet, faina opens a world of flavor.

Fulfill the extreme mineral needs of an athlete by eating this great food that comes loaded with micronutrients. For every cup of chickpeas, you get 2.6 mg of zinc, the mineral of great importance to athletes. This is the same amount as poultry, better than eggs, and about half that of beef. Chickpeas are a great source of magnesium (153 mg), calcium (42 mg), potassium (778 mg) and folic acid (402 mcg). By soaking and scooping to remove the antinutrients, you’ll be able to easily absorb the micronutrients. The high concentration of copper in chickpea (0.8 mg) is unusual and of great need for athletes who train with high intensity.3

Faina has a small amount of protein, about 20% as much as beef.  Despite the hype about vegetable protein, humans don’t process protein from legumes at the same level of efficiency as that of meat or fish. Chickpeas come with a high carbohydrate count, 121 grams per cup that serves six people, but these carbohydrates have a low glycemic index of 28.The very high fiber content leads to chickpea flatbread’s popularity as a filling food. The human gut easily tolerates the high amount of fiber in chickpeas, a fiber that is 75% insoluble. Chickpeas help with sleep, relaxation, and memory due to its high cholene content.4

One cup of checkpea flour has ten grams of fiber. The same portion has twelve grams of total fat. Although this is double the fat in whole wheat flour, 70% of the fat in chickpea flour comes from unsaturated fats, with five grams polyunsaturated fats and about three grams monounsaturated.

Cicer arietinujm is thebotanical name for chickpeas. They are very different from their cousins, phaseolus vulgaris, the most common beans in diet. Chickpeas have very low levels of antinutrients. The highest antinutrient levels come from phaselous vulgaris varieties of soy, black, red and white beans. These beans and peas (the mature form of legumes) are not recommended for regular consumption by athletes due to the problematic antinutrient content.

Some people cannot eat legumes for the dietary distress. Other people eat mostly legumes. It is the choice of specific types of legumes that determine the amount of specific antinutrients. Overall, on a scale of A to F, chickpeas tend to show up at the B to C level for legumes, far better than soy and popular beans. However, the standard process of soaking chickpea flour, spooning off the foam, and then cooking at high temperature degrades most (50% to 75%) of the antinutrients.5

Phitates are an antinutrient in legumes. Food phitates can bind minerals and prevent their full absorption. And chickpeas, like other legumes, can be difficult to digest which means robbing performance energy to provide for inefficient digestion. But phitates in chickpeas are mostly removed when soaked and spooned off. Chickpea phitic acid is 0.56% of its weight, but not nearly as high a reading as brown rice, which has 0.99%, while almonds have very high phitates of 3.22%.

Lectins are another antinutrient in legumes. Soy beans, navy beans, baked beans, black beans, kidney beans all feature the most difficult antinutrients for the human gut to digest. This is due to the high level of lectins of popular beans (phaseolus vulgaris). These are gas forming and potentially dangerous to the gut taken in higher concentrations. However, nuts also have high lectin levels. Soaking and spooning chickpea flour significantly reduces lectins, and then cooking at high temperature removes more. Thus resulting lectins are not a significant part of faina.

Saponins are antinutrients in most legumes, and these can lead to many digestive problems. In high concentration foods eaten regularly, saponins can damage the exterior membrane lining of cells of the gut. Soy protein, so liberally used in sport nutrition products, is by far the worst source of saponins, more than seven times the volume of chickpeas. Green beans from the garden are best, next in line are chickpeas.

Just make it!

For elite athletes, chickpeas are a great dietary choice to solve a difficult problem. The insoluble fiber makes this a very low glycemic index carbohydrate, offering long term energy. Blood sugar is therefore regulated for hours. There will be no breakdown due to insufficient carbohydrate load during three hours of grueling practice. But the filling nature of chickpea will mean that hunger won’t disrupt physical work or concentration.

There will be no problem from synthetic chemical additives, no preservatives, and very low effect from chemical fertilization such as is the case with corn or wheat. There will be no chemicals used to alter the color or texture as with other popular starches.

Cooking chickpea flour into faina stops hunger. A couple of small pieces of farina with eggs for breakfast will feel like a large meal. A lunch with a couple pieces will take hours to completely digest, providing boundless carbohydrate energy for a long afternoon of practice. Research indicates that subjects with chickpea in the diet report more “satisfaction” with their diet. Due to the high fiber content of chickpea, those consuming chickpea consumed fewer processed snacks.6,7

Overall, chickpeas in theory and in human practice are one of mankind’s most widely used and safest nutrients, based on thousands of years of feeding the human race. One reason is because generation after generation of mankind laboring in the sun discovered that chickpeas (faina, falafel, and hummus) fuels for hours of hard work.

Athletes who train intensely often feel trapped in nutrition never-never land. They need lots of prolonged energy to work to the limit several hours each day. They need lots of explosive muscle power for this work. They need to be rested and in a non-synthetic chemical state. So obviously they need high protein, high fat and high carbohydrate nutrition that are free from chemical additives.

But athletes also must face a big problem with excess body weight. They can’t compromise speed and can’t compromise muscle/joint health. So the result is to be very, very selective about the exact food to fuel this huge energy output. For an alternative to commercial bread, faina made from chickpea would be the perfect choice for athletes.

Chickpea / garbanzo flour is easy to find at grocery stores and quite cheap. With two cups of the flour you can make a huge pizza pan faina. Whole Foods is the most expensive, but you can order five pounds online from All Bulk Foods.com for about $15. That should last a couple of months making faina regularly. Because it is so easy to bag up and freeze, you can have it many times per week.

References:

1. Shahal Abbo, PhD., et al. Wild lentil and chickpea harvest in Israel: bearing on the origins of Near Eastern farming. Journal of Archaeological Science, December, 2008.

2. George Wilcox. Late Pleistocene and early Holocene climate and the beginnings of cultivation in northern Syria. Sage Journals, The Holocene. February, 2009.

3. Alison Evert, MS., et al. Dietary reference intakes: vitamin A, vitamin K, arsenic, boron, chromium, copper, iodine, iron, manganese, molybdenum, nickel, silicon, vanadium, and zinc. Journal of the American Dietetic Association. March, 2001.

4. ______. Chickpea properties. http://www.botanical-online.com/english/chickpea_properties.htm. Accessed December, 2014.

5. N. Huma, et al. Effect of soaking and cooking on nutritional quality and safety of legumes. Nutrition and Food Science. Vol. 38, Iss. 6; p. 570-577. 2008.

6. ConstanceBrown-Riggs, MS Ed. Functional fibers – research shows they provide health benefits similar to intact fibers in whole foods. Today’s Dietitian, December 2013. Accessed December, 2014.

7. G. Harvey Anderson, PhD., and D. Woodend. Effect of glycemic carbohydrates on short-term satiety and food intake. Nutrition Reviews, 61(5): 17-26, 2003.

©Randy Smythe, 2014