Where d’ya get your protein huh?
Any vegans or vegetarians will know this as a pretty typical question in their daily life (perhaps not asked quite so dramatically though…). Yet when people don’t eat meat, it is of course the natural curiosity, and I’ve seen many veggie friends not often knowing exactly how to answer.
It’s ok though because in India we’ve got this one down! Over half the population (a staggering 600 million people) has been vegetarian for hundreds of years, and if we hadn’t stumbled upon some delicious source of plant-based protein in that time, it would’ve been game-over long ago.
The answer lies in Indian lentils. We simply can’t get enough of them, from dal in the morning to chana masala at night, we are lapping up the pulses and their colourful abundance.
The secret to their proper enjoyment lies in variety, so here I’d like to share my five favourites to help ignite some good ol’ lentil passion in your spicy heart, and get you mixing up your cheeky shopping basket.
1. Yellow Split Pea/Arhaar daal/Toor dal
Ok, we’ve got a lot of names for this bad-boy, but that’s because these golden goodies are a firm favourite in every Indian household. Right from the tip of Kerela, to the heights of the Himalayas, there would never be a family in India who did not eat these on a weekly (if not daily) basis. In fact, I’d dare say that love for this lentil is one of the strongest glues that binds India together as a country (that and our love for cricket of course…).
These Indian lentils are also extremely easy to prepare: wash them 2-3 times until the water goes clear, and boil them with the lid on for around 40 minutes. A simple tadka (‘tempering’) is then applied by frying off a little cumin seed, fresh green chilli, ginger and a little chilli powder, and mixing it in at the end. These lentils can be a little heavy on the stomach so are often mixed with yellow moong lentils too, and you can see such a dish prepared perfectly here. Mmmmm… Ladled on hot basmati, this simply spells out Sunday lunch in India!
2. Black gram/Kaali urad daal
This black beauty is most common to Northern parts of India. Considered to be more warming than its colourful counterparts, it is as stubborn as it looks, and needs a good cooking. Beloved by the Punjab regions, they soak the lentil overnight and cook it in ghee with tomatoes, onions and an array of spices, before finishing with a ladle of cream. Served with missi roti (a gram flour bread), and even more ghee, this is a lentil for lavish meals where feeling a little heavy in the stomach afterwards is not a problem! Check out the Indian icon, Tarla Dalal, and her recipe here.
3. Chickpeas/ Chhole
An intensely protein-rich lentil (or technically a pea), chickpeas have o’ so many wonderful uses in Indian cookery. From the north heralds its most famous preparation, where they are cooked with a rich tomato-onion masala and abundant spices. While the central and western states use chickpea flour like it were wheat for numerous nutritionally rich breads and other preparations.
When cooking, make sure to soak for them 10-12 hours before-hand. Otherwise these hardy peas will boil and boil, yet never yield their soft splendour. Once soaked and boiling on the hob, prepare on the side your very best masala, and then as the chickpeas are al dente, chuck them in and let it all cook together for a good half hour. This is a dish we love so much, we’ve even shared our own recipe here!
4. Red kidney beans/ Rajma
Originating from the northern parts of India, specifically the states of Jammu and Kashmir, this beautiful organ-resembling bean has a deliciously mild and sweet taste, and is considered a hot and warming bean, perfect for chilly seasons. Like its chickpea cousin, it needs a good soaking before cooking, and doesn’t find the company of a deep green-chilli masala too disagreeable at all… Check out an authentic and simple recipe for these Indian lentils here.
An extra tip from the eternal source of cooking wisdom that is my mum; when boiling the kidney beans, put in the cooking water a little potli or tied up bag of muslin containing bay leaf, a few cloves, a little cinnamon stick, and black cardamon. Let this bag stay in the rajma all the way to the end of cooking and then pick it out before serving. This way your rajma will truly be a winter warmer and no whole spices in your mouth either.
5. Split green lentils/ Hara moong
Indian doctors are both versed in modern and traditional medicine, and to this day will advise to eat these green do-gooders if suffering from a poorly tummy. At the first signs of illness at home, mum or grandma would be there with a supremely nutritious bowl of Hara moong dal, where we believe the green colouring is a signal of how easily it can be digested. Like with split yellow lentils, these only have to be washed two or three times, and boiled for 40 minutes.
However they are extremely versatile in Indian cooking; while they make delicious dal, it is not uncommon also to use them for making khichdi (when cooked together with rice), and topped with hot mango pickle, or even soaked and ground to make a lentil batter for savoury pancakes. As with all green things, this is a firm favourite of mums up and down the country.
And there it is! I hope next time your in the Asian aisles and you see strange-looking Indian lentils, you might think to this list and put it in your trolley. Or are there any we missed that you think should be in the list? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!