Besan Chilla: The Indian Breakfast Dish That Happens To Be Vegan

Unless you're the one in five U.S. adults that skips it, per Kitchen Infinity, people tend to agree on the importance of eating breakfast. But on those hectic mornings, when you only have a few minutes to spare, it can be hard to put something together — let alone something new and exciting. In time, your overnight oats and avocado toast can begin to feel blah. That's your sign to start looking at traditional breakfast options in different regions of the world for inspiration. 

In India, for example, there are many delicious and balanced breakfast recipes — ranging from more elaborate dishes you could make at a weekend brunch such as poori (fried bread) to quicker meals like idli (savory rice cake) or semiya upma (vermicelli noodle dish) that you can make before work (via Indian Healthy Recipes). India's gram flour pancake, the besan chilla, however, is particularly popular because not only is it as quick to prepare as an everyday omelet, but according to Food Trails 25, it's also naturally vegan and gluten-free. 

History of besan chilla

Besan, or gram flour, is a flour made from split brown chickpeas, per Vegan Richa. Although it remains unknown when besan first appeared in India, The Economic Times reports that kadhi, a dish that blends besan with yogurt, may have originated from besan's latter-day use as an alternative thickening agent. Today besan is an infamously popular ingredient all over India, but it's also known and loved in regions around the world — all with their own versions of crepelike, baked dishes using the split chickpea flour.

Besan chilla, also known as besan ka cheela, or pudla in some Indian states (via Indian Healthy Recipes), is from a North Indian state called Sindh, which is now a province in Pakistan, per Khou. In Hindi, its name literally translates to "gram pancake," not to be confused with India's meaty potato pancakes. Popularly referred to as the vegan omelet, per Food Trails 25, the besan chilla is naturally plant-based and gluten-free — offering a sweet or savory, nutritious breakfast that can be whipped up in a matter of minutes.

Varieties and how it's made

In accordance with its nickname — the vegan omelet – Indian Healthy Recipes says that besan chillas are quick and simple to prepare. Just like any other omelet or pancake, all a besan chilla requires is a bowl and a hot griddle. Sweet besan chilla is mixed with jaggery, a "superfood sweetener" (via Healthline), and cardamom. 

But if you're going the savory route, you'll need to chop up some vegetables — onions and tomatoes are typically used. Spinach, grated carrots, beets, and zucchini are also recommended, along with fresh herbs like fenugreek and cilantro. Once chopped, put them in a bowl along with some seasonings (carom is important for aroma and turmeric for color), your chosen flour, and water, and then mix until smooth. Then, pour the mixture onto the griddle and flip when the sides start to pull back from the pan. 

Besan chilla comes in many forms, which mostly vary between the different bases they use. Some are made with oats, semolina, millet flour, and wheat flour; this makes the dish extremely adaptable to different diets. Besan is popular for this dish because not only is it protein (21 grams per cup) and fiber-rich, but it's also extremely quick to prepare. However, it's also commonly made using moong lentils, or mung beans, to create something that's essentially what you can find in those golden-yellow bottles of the egg alternative JUST Egg.

How it's eaten

Even though it's thought of as a breakfast dish, the truth is that besan chilla can be eaten at all times of the day. According to NDTV Food, they're particularly popular at North Indian weddings. In fact, they're commonly served to guests during Mehndi parties, a pre-wedding celebration that is traditional in Sikh and Hindu culture, where the bride has their guests have henna painted (via Martha Stewart). The besan chilla is often served on its own or with a cup of masala chai, a black tea with notes of cardamom, ginger, and cinnamon, per Dona.

However, besan chilla can certainly be dressed up — food blogger Chehati, for example, stuffs theirs with paneer, a soft, unaged Indian cheese that doesn't melt. They also top it with bright green cilantro chutney and ketchup, which is possibly a shortcut ingredient for the tomato chutney or sauce that Food Trails 25 claims it's commonly eaten with. If you're keeping it vegan, on the other hand, Some Indian Girl recommends substituting the paneer with tofu. It's the alternative they grew up using the most and comes with a boost of protein.