Cooking with Legumes

Lentils on Spoon

Heart of an Ayurvedic meal

As a vegetarian, one of the prime sources of proteins and other nutrients is legumes. In countries like India where there are large numbers of vegetarians, legumes have always been an important part of the Ayurvedic diet. The everyday main meal is usually based around a soup with legumes as the main ingredient. The soup dishes are named after the bean or lentil and are served as the main course.

There is a prevailing deep relationship with bean or lentil soup because these legumes are deemed as an ancient crop linked with antiquity. Savouring a hearty soup has been hailed as a tasty way to imbibe the high protein content of these legumes. Vegetarians are often taught that the proteins from beans and lentils are the best for muscles. Besides milk and the various dairy products made from the milk of indigenous cows, legume protein is considered the best alternative to all other forms of animal protein. Practitioners of various schools of martial arts, hatha-yoga, yoga-vinyāsa traditions as well as ardent meditators rely heavily on legumes to maintain their flexible musculature.

The delectable flavour and art of cooking these legumes into sumptuous soups have earned a broad-based culinary appreciation in various parts of the world, especially in the Mediterranean and Persian diet. It is believed in India that the tradition of growing grains and legumes has thrived since agriculture came to be rooted in India some 15,000 years ago in the present cycle of inhabitation dating back to Vedic antiquity (archeo-genetic research data supports this notion!). Alongside animal husbandry, lentils have had a worldwide history of hand-husbandry, meaning that hearty soups for meals have a complete chain of caring hands at every stage from tilling, sowing, harvesting, threshing, cooking and relishing in the after-effects of a satiating meal. Like another major dry-land crop – millets, lentils are dry-farmed and mostly rain-fed, not needing irrigation. In parts of India, lentils are planted typically after the rice harvest and are known to survive wintry conditions prevalent when the crop is usually grown.

What’s in a legume?

Legumes include a wide variety of beans, lentils and peas. The words legume, bean, lentil and pea can be used to refer to either the plant itself or the fruit it produces in the form of seeds. Edible legumes are also known as pulses. However ‘pulses’ can have a narrower definition meaning crops harvested for their dry seeds and this would exclude green beans and green peas, for example.

In biological terms, legumes can be defined as belonging to the Leguminosae or Fabaceae family consisting of over 10,000 species; some sources claim up to 18,000 species. Only about 200 are known to be cultivated and a much smaller number of pulses are readily available on the market for consumption. Lentils form a subcategory within the legume family known as Lens culinaris. Herein Lens is a Latin word which describes the shape of the seed of a cultivated legume. This name from the late 18th century is attributed to Medikus, a German botanist and physician.

A defining feature of the Leguminosae or Fabaceae family is that the seed is often inside a pod that has two halves with a seam down the middle. The pod is usually soft but in the case of the peanut, which is also classified as a legume, it grows hard and has to be broken open. Each legume is slightly different in the way the pod grows and what it contains. Sometimes the pod is edible as in the case of sugar snap peas which can be eaten whole, pod and all. There is a distinction between legumes like these that are picked when they are still green and those that are picked later when they are mature. Normally as the pod of a bean, pea or lentil reaches maturity, it turns yellow or brown and dries up. Meanwhile the beans, peas and lentils inside also dry up and turn from green to their final colouring.

Pre-soaking the pulses

Because the seeds are dry, soaking overnight is usually necessary before cooking except in the case of certain pulses where soaking in boiling water for 10 –20 minutes is sufficient. Bigger beans including the popular kidney beans and lima beans can be soaked overnight. Oftentimes, dried green or black whole chickpeas (chana) may be soaked overnight. If and when proper pressure cooking appliances are available, pre-soaking is unnecessary. Not only does soaking soften up the seeds but it can also relieve somewhat the cause of flatulence. The gaseous content stored for future germination is released upon soaking with hot water. However, two complex sugars, namely, raffinose and stachyose are very difficult to digest! The same sugars are found in grains such as wheat and rye, some members of the brassica family and certain root vegetables.

These indigestible sugars are fed upon and fermented by the gut bacteria. The fermentation releases gases. Along with mostly non-odourous hydrogen and carbon dioxide, a small pungent percentage that includes hydrogen sulphide is enough to embarrass and deter many from embracing a vegetarian diet, which relies largely on commonly cooked pulses! Of course the amounts of these sugars vary among plants within the same species. Similarly, the susceptibility to flatulence from cooked beans and lentils also varies among individuals.

The sea vegetable kombu has an extraordinary ability to render pulses more digestible and less gas-producing because it contains enzymes that help break down the raffinose sugars. Once these sugars are broken down, more of the nutrients are absorbable and less gas is produced thereby making the eating of legumes a more enjoyable experience. Typically a few inch-long strips of dried kombu can be used in cooking these soups. One strip per soup is enough.

Balancing with spice blends

The experience of flatulence is largely reduced and overcome by the use of complementary spice blends, especially those from the Apiaceae family of plants as well as other well-known Ayurvedic carminative seeds such as kalonji (nigella) and ajwain (carom). In Ayurveda, bean and lentil soups are often made according to the soli-lunar diet that synergizes the absorption of pulses in harmony with the energies of planets and luminaries they imbibe (see table at the end of this article). Secondly, the beans or lentils are taken in accordance with one’s basic dosha constitution (or body type) for increased digestion. The third primary guidance consists of balancing spices and special ingredients, which are mixed while cooking the soups so that all six tastes, namely, sweet, sour, salty, bitter, astringent and pungent, are all balanced.

The art of soup excellence then depends upon bean and lentil selection for the particular day and then balancing it for dosha constitution, and thereafter overcoming any shortcomings via spice blends and other special ingredients. Adding up to a cup of real buttermilk at the end rounds off the soup, gives it body and makes it colon friendly! Garnishing with copious amounts of fresh green herbs, especially cilantro, balances the agni and makes the food suitable for those who have dominant Pitta dosha. Moreover, cilantro has excellent blood cleansing properties. Similarly, curry leaves are added as blood thinners. Date jaggery is used as an iron supplement and to balance the sweet taste. Furthermore, fenugreek seeds or neem flowers are used to balance the bitter taste. Mustard seeds or mustard oil add to the pungent taste. Verily, turmeric adds to the astringent taste. Minerals are boosted by the use of high quality natural salts.

The art of balancing the six tastes while making the soup tri-doshic (acceptable to all three principal Ayurvedic dosha constitutions), digestible without flatulence using spices and special ingredients, and matched to the planetary energies is at the height of culinary accomplishment. When the flame is turned off at the end of cooking, and the heavier portion (including any other added vegetables) settles to the bottom leaving watery layers on top, then Ayurvedic soup-making is yet to be mastered! The whole soup needs to be uniform and balanced, delectable to the taste and surely satiating to hunger. One balanced soup meal that is low in sweet, sour and salty tastes and yet delicious is deemed enough to satisfy the palette for the day. Such is the benefit of an Ayurvedic balanced soup.

In order to make sure that the soup does not settle after cooking leaving watery layers on top, the correct relationship between cooking time and the tempering phase needs to be learnt from repeated practice. Water content varies based on pre-soaking versus pressure cooking the pulses. Such adjustments can be learnt from experimenting. Usually the rounded shapes of the pulses are not maintained and soups tend to become uniform. This is good for digestibility! If low flame or low heat is used throughout cooking, the soup will be nutritious. The aim is to preserve as much of the nascent taste of the pulses as possible. For this reason, a measured amount of water is used at the beginning and it is not advisable to keep on adding water during cooking. If water has to be added later, it should be added the minimal number of times possible. There is no fast and high heat cooking of legumes (unless pressure cooking is used); otherwise the protein quality might be compromised. Once the process is understood, it is difficult to mess up!

Nutritional value

Another defining feature of legumes is that almost all of the members of the Leguminosae family are capable of fixing atmospheric nitrogen through the action of bacteria in their root system. Nitrogen acts as a fertilizer and is a constituent of protein. This explains why legumes are one of the best providers of protein in the plant kingdom. Legumes are also grown as forage for animals or ploughed back into the soil to increase the nitrogen as part of crop rotation with non-leguminous plants. These are known as ‘forage legumes’. Legumes fall into various categories including ‘grain legumes’ which are cultivated for their seeds and used for human consumption. They may also be used for the production of oils as is the case for soybeans, for example.

It should be noted that grain legumes are not the same as cereal grains. In fact, the protein composition of legumes and cereal grains complement each other very well in terms of providing a complete range of proteins or amino acids for a healthy diet. Indeed, this combination has formed the basis for popular vegetarian dishes around the world. For example, the Central Americans eat beans with corn tortillas or tacos, the Middle Eastern nations serve hummus (garbanzo spread) with pita bread while the lovers of Ayurveda serve bean or lentil soup with rice and various types of flat breads (such as those made with millet flour). Barley and lentils together make a very satisfying combination. However, bean or lentil soup is best combined with heirloom rice or heirloom millet especially if adhering to a gluten-free regimen.

Legumes provide a good source of protein, fibre and folate — all necessary for a healthy diet. Folate is especially important to pregnant women. According to the United States Department of Health from investigations of the requirements of adult women, three cups of legumes a week contain:

  • 24% of the recommended weekly requirement of folate
  • 15% of the recommended weekly requirement of protein
  • 20% of the recommended weekly requirement of fibre

In addition to the above, legumes are a good source of phosphorus and magnesium among other minerals. However, these are general figures and though most legumes have significant amounts of protein, fibre and iron, the amounts vary from one type to another.

Summary of the nutritional benefits of legumes

  • High protein content. A non-animal source of digestible protein
  • Good source of dietary fibre
  • Low in fat
  • About half a cupful provides about a quarter of folate requirements for women
  • A good source of phosphorus, potassium, iron, zinc, calcium and selenium
  • Vitamins include thiamin (B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3), B5 and B6
  • Rich in antioxidants

Coloured beans and their qualities

Below is a short summary of nutritional qualities listing some of the more commonly consumed beans.

  • Black-eyed peas – these beans contain more calcium than any other bean; good source of folate and magnesium. Split black-eyed peas are commonly known as the chora lentil often used in making creamy soups.
  • Kidney beans – high fibre source and a rich antioxidant bean that is cooked as a popular Ayurvedic dish called rajma.
  • Red beans – an excellent source of iron and a top antioxidant bean containing more antioxidants than blueberries when compared by weight.
  • Black beans – in addition to ranking among the best source of antioxidants among beans, black beans are a high source of magnesium and iron.
  • Pinto beans – a high source of selenium among beans, they are also known for higher antioxidant power than the blueberry.
  • Green gram – small olive-green beans (mung) available whole or split. Good source of iron, thiamin, riboflavin and folate with some potassium and calcium.
  • Red gram – small round brownish cream beans popularly known as pigeon peas (toor or tuvar) available whole or split. Rich in iron and potassium with some calcium.
  • Black Bengal gram – these beans look similar in shape and size to whole green gram but are black (urad). They are available as whole and split. When the outer layers are husked, they are creamy-white in colour. They have markedly higher fibre content in comparison to chickpeas.
  • Chickpeas – the most well-known chickpea (chana) is the whitish garbanzo bean which is round, rough on the outside and pointed at one end. They are available both as whole and split. Good source of protein, iron, folate, phosphorus and dietary fibre.