21st century pulse: Old World beans

Categories: Expert guidance

In light of World Food Day, Jenny Chandler explores Old World beans and their usefulness as a provider of cheap, accessible protein

It may seem a little Eurocentric to refer to the Old and New World, but when it comes to our consumption of pulses it does simplify things greatly. Chickpeas, lentils, peas and fava beans were all firm fixtures in the European diet in the days of Ancient Rome but many of the other legumes that we dive into today arrived much later.

There are simply dozens of beans on offer if you look around the cornershops of London, reflecting the incredible ethnic mix we have in the city. The pulses available in Asian or African stores will be primarily those of the Vigna genus of the Old World, while Mediterranean or Brazilian shops will be well stocked with members of the Phaseolus family, the relative newcomers from the Americas.

Many of the Old World beans from Asia such as mung beans, moth beans, black gram and azuki are under-utilised in Britain, partly because we’re bewildered by the dozens of different names they’re given. The pulse selection in an Indian store is confused further by the fact that many of those same beans are split and hulled and sold as dal too, with yet more names to contend with. I recommend trying a couple of new beans every now and then–just simmer until tender, you can’t really go wrong.

Texture and form
Shiny, tiny, whole beans such as mung, or black eyed peas (which originated in Africa), are ideal when you’re making a stew or salad and you want some texture and form. They require no soaking and will cook in about 20-30 minutes; be sure not to overcook them and they’ll hold their shape, supping up dressings and sauces beautifully.

If it’s a creamy sauce or mash that you’re after, then cook any variety of dal (split pulse) until it collapses. Once you begin experimenting with different beans you can play around with the nuances of flavour and mouth-feel.

Dal with freshly fried spices (known as ‘tarka’, or tempering) has to be one of the world’s greatest comfort foods. I love to eat dal and often cook up a big pot to keep in the fridge so that we can eat it over a couple of days. One day I might fry up mustard seeds, curry leaves and chilli as the tarka topping and serve it with rice, the next day my dal could be tempered with ginger and cumin fried up in ghee and served with chapatis.

Nutritional value
For much of the Indian subcontinent these combinations are a staple because pulses offer an incredibly economical source of protein. Pulses contain all but one of the essential amino acids required to make up protein and, rather miraculously, cereals such as wheat and rice contain the missing piece of the jigsaw. It’s not just the vegetarians of Asia who rely heavily upon the nutritional value of dried legumes but the meat eaters too, as beans and dal will often bulk out the more expensive animal protein, making it stretch further.

Now more than ever we are thinking about the issues of a growing world population and the stress it is placing upon our food resources. Pulses can begin to answer some of our concerns by providing cheap, accessible protein, not just to the developing world but to Europe too. Ideally we would all become flexitarians—a slightly irritating but rather useful term, for those of us who eat a primarily veggie diet with the odd bit of meat or fish thrown in. If we only consume really good quality, sustainably reared meat, and less of it, we will certainly be doing the planet a favour.

Click here to find Jenny’s recipe for southern Indian sambar.