Food - Beans

Beans, peas and lentils are widely consumed in South Asia. They all come from the pea family, known to botanists as the Leguminosae or Fabaceae. The seeds or whole pods are either consumed fresh, like green vegetables, or dried, when they are known as pulses. Pulses make up the majority of legumes consumed in South Asia and are an important sources of calories and protein. They form the main ingredient of many dishes. Some are ground to produce flours used to make pancakes and baked goods.

What is a pulse?

A photograph of dried brown chickpeas from an Asian supermarket.
Indian chickpeas, also known as Bengal gram, are smaller than other varieties outside South Asia.

A pulse is the collective term for the edible, dried seeds of legumes such as beans, peas and lentils. Some have been used in Asia for thousands of years, while others are more recent introductions. Most pulses are grown as annual climbing or trailing crops.

In South Asia, a distinction is made between pulses that are left whole and those that are split. Whole seeds are called gram, while split seeds are known as dal. The term dal can be confusing because, while it means split pea or bean, it also refers to the dish prepared from it. There are at least 60 different kinds of dal made from peas, beans or lentils.

Green peas, masoor dal and kesari beans have been found in India dating from between 1800 BC to 2000 BC. Mung beans and horsegram have also been eaten on the subcontinent since ancient times. Written records confirm that pulses have been a major component of people's diets throughout history. These records also document how beans were traditionally prepared and eaten. Three popular pulses mentioned in ancient texts are mung, masoor and urd beans. Later texts mention a host of other pulses that are still in common use today, including, chickpeas, cowpeas and pigeon peas (adhaki).

More recent introductions include jackbeans, cluster, broad, lima and kidney beans. These were introduced from South America.


Painting of Indian crops being farmed
Image: Gouache painting showing different Indian crops being farmed.

There is an inexhaustible variety of peas, beans and lentils, consumed in South Asia. The three most widely eaten pulses are chickpeas, pigeon peas and urd beans. Chickpeas, also known as Bengal gram or chana dal, are South Asia's most widely consumed pulse. India produces more pulses than any other country and most of them are eaten in various dal dishes. Chickpeas are also used to produce gram flour, or basan flour.

Pigeon peas, also known as adhaki, are the second most commonly used bean in dal after chickpeas. It is grown all over India. Urd, or black gram, is a bean which has ceremonial significance for Hindus. They come in a range of colours including black, as the name suggest, and green. They are finely ground and used to make poppadoms and dosa. The young, fresh pods can also be eaten as a vegetable.

A close relative of urd is the mung bean. These legumes are mostly used to produce a golden or green gram. The beans can also be eaten as dried split peas, or eaten fresh and sprouted. Cowpeas, or black-eyed beans, are mainly eaten in dal in South Asia.

South Asia is also one of the world's largest producers of lentils. They form an important part of the local diet; they are often used to made dal and soups. Masoor dal, or red split lentils, are salmon-coloured split peas. Toovar dal are amber coloured.

Lablab beans are eaten fresh like vegetables and dried. It is a good crop for the drier parts of South Asia because it can withstand drought. Two closely related bean species that are eaten fresh, are the jack bean and the sword bean. The jack bean is an introduced plant from South America and is now particularly popular in India. The sword bean is native to Asia.

Preparation and cooking

While fresh beans require no special preparation, dried seeds contain chemicals that are harmful to the health. They need to be prepared and cooked properly, by soaking and boiling them. Not all pulses need to be soaked, but they often require lengthy cooking.

One of the most common dals throughout South Asia is made from chickpeas. The split chickpeas are much bigger than most other dal seeds. Another common dal is made using pigeon peas, while many regional dals are made using from lentils.

Methods of cooking dal vary. In South India, the aim is to generally produce a liquid, soup-like consistency, while in the north, a thicker texture is preferred. Some beans or lentils used to make dal are pre-soaked and others are not.

Besan flour, or gram, is produced from chickpeas and forms a basic ingredient of South Asian cookery. It is made by finely milling the seeds. Mixed with water it makes batter coatings for fritters and pakora. It is also used in savoury noodles, dumplings and sweets. It can also be used as a thickening ingredient.