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A 5-Recipe, Whirlwind Tour of India By Way of its Staple Protein Source

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Until not so long ago, pulses—the dried seeds of legumes like beans, peas, and lentils—had a bad reputation: relegated to the health food category and generally seen as a bit “worthy”—the food of hemp trouser-wearing hippies.

Now, thanks many people eating less meat but searching for new sources of sustenance, deliciousness, and protein, pulses have been put in the spotlight. In fact, they’ve risen to such dizzying heights recently that the U.N. has proclaimed it the International Year of Pulses: This is their moment and your chance to get better acquainted with them.

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Our feast of pulses.
Our feast of pulses. Photo by Mark Weinberg

Here's what you need to know to cook them, as well as five of my favorite pulse-based recipes from around India.

The Know-How

In India, pulses have been eaten since the dawn of civilization, by rich and poor alike. In part, this is because they’re a cheap source of protein, containing up to twice as much as most grains—but also because they are so versatile. Some pulses, like the chickpea, can be ground down to a flour, which is then used to make quick pancakes or batter for fritters like bhajis; others can be cooked to a rich silky dal or thrown into a salad or street-food for texture.

Still, misconceptions that pulses are tricky, boring or take forever to soak or cook abound. Not so. There’s a pulse for every person, here’s what you need to know to pick yours.

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Dried or Tinned?

The answer is largely dependent on how much time you have. In general, pulses and lentils cooked from scratch taste better because they are softer and creamier. But, for convenience, I keep tinned chickpeas, black-eyed beans, and kidney beans in the store-cupboard, as I use these most frequently for quick mid-week dinners.

Other dals, lentils, and pulses, I tend to buy dried or ground and store in big air-tight containers.

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To Soak or Not to Soak?

You don’t have to soak your pulses—especially not the smallest ones like red lentils or split mung beans: These cook quickly enough without it. That being said, larger pulses, like kidney beans or chickpeas, do benefit from a long overnight soak because it can shave anything from thirty minutes to an hour off the total cooking time.

Some people swear by using a pinch or two of baking soda when soaking to speed up the cooking times. I don’t do this as I’ve not noticed a significant time reduction, but it won’t harm your pulses to do so. Just remember to drain the chickpeas before you start cooking with them.

Tips on Cooking: Do’s and Don’ts

Happily, pulses are some of the easiest thing to cook on earth. Overall, you’ll just need a deep-lidded pan and some water. Cooking time will depend on the type of pulse and how old they are.

Simply cover your pulses or lentils with a generous amount of cold water, then bring to a rapid boil, turn down the heat, and simmer. Many pulses and lentils give off foam, largely made up of proteins, as they cook, which is completely natural. Just keep a slotted spoon nearby to skim off and discard every now and then.

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Generally speaking, pulses are cooked when they’re tender—that is, when they can be easily crushed between a thumb and forefinger and are no longer chalky and hard inside.

It's common practice in Indian cooking not to add salt or any acids, like lemon juice or tomatoes, to beans while they're cooking, as it toughens skins before they’ve had a chance to soften and can lengthen the cooking time considerably.

You also don’t need to cook your pulses: To make them fresh-tasting and crunchy, you could sprout them instead (this also boosts the nutritional value manifold). Easy pulses to sprout are mung beans, chickpeas, and brown lentils. Place a small handful in a jam jar covered by muslin. Just add and wash and drain everyday, for around three or four days, and watch them magically transform.

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The Recipes

Every Indian household has their own way of cooking pulses, and regional variations are vast. But there are some dishes that Indians agree have risen to the premier league. The ones below are some of India’s greatest hits, but also some of my personal favorites.

New Potato & Chickpea Chaat (Aloo Chana Chaat)

New Potato & Chickpea Chaat (Aloo Chana Chaat)
New Potato & Chickpea Chaat (Aloo Chana Chaat)

This is a very famous street-side snack that originates in Uttar Pradesh but is popular all over India, especially in the North.

Here, a can of chickpeas is put to fabulous use with hot buttery potatoes, a flourish of shallots, and a smoldering slick of tamarind. Classically, it’s finished with a handful of crunchy savory chickpea noodles called "sev."

Notes: Tamarind paste and sev are nearly always found in the Asian section of big supermarkets. If there’s no sev, a little Bombay mix works a treat. Because tamarind paste varies from brand to brand, add it gradually until it tastes just right to you.

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New Potato & Chickpea Chaat (Aloo Chana Chaat)

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Serves 4
  • 1/2 cup dates or 8, pitted
  • 3 teaspoons tamarind paste
  • Salt
  • 2 tablespoons Greek yogurt
  • 1 pound 6 ounces new potatoes
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 teaspoon cumin seeds, roughly ground
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1 serrano chile, finely chopped
  • One 14-ounce can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
  • 1 large shallot, finely diced
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • Large handful of cilantro, chopped
  • Handful of thin sev (fried chickpea noodles)

Pudla

Pudla (Chickpea Flour Pancakes)
Pudla (Chickpea Flour Pancakes)

This is one of my favorite pantry go-tos and Gujarat’s favorite pancake. Pudlas are made using chickpea flour and yogurt and have a wonderful deeply savory flavor. Eat them plain, with just a spoonful of pickle and a lick of yogurt, or stuffed with mushrooms, lamb, spring onions, tomatoes, or any other filling you like.

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Pudla (Chickpea Flour Pancakes)

6968cebe 2fa7 4d8c afdc 8c4ef7a9eed6  screen shot 2015 11 20 at 2.05.14 pm Meera Sodha
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Makes 12 pudlas, enough for 4 to 6 people
  • 2 cups plus 2 tablespoons chickpea flour (besan)
  • 2/3 cup whole milk yogurt, plus extra to serve
  • 1 3/4 cups water
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
  • 1 serrano chile, finely chopped
  • 4 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 1 3/4-inch piece ginger, peeled and grated
  • 2 tablespoons cilantro, chopped
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • Unsalted butter, for cooking

Butternut Squash, Red Lentil, and Eggplant Sambhar

Butternut Squash, Red Lentil, and Eggplant Sambhar
Butternut Squash, Red Lentil, and Eggplant Sambhar

Sambhar is a South Indian red lentil-based vegetable stew from Tamil Nadu that's eaten daily all the way from Mumbai to Bangalore. Sambhar puts vegetables front and center and surrounds them with a sharp, clean dal flavored with curry leaves, tamarind, tomatoes, and chiles. You’ll only need a little rice or bread and a dollop of yoghurt with this, and you’re on your way.

Feel free to vary the vegetables to whatever grows locally and in season, just like they do in India. And, as with the chaat, add the tamarind paste gradually, until the dish tastes good to you.

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Butternut Squash, Red Lentil, and Eggplant Sambhar

6968cebe 2fa7 4d8c afdc 8c4ef7a9eed6  screen shot 2015 11 20 at 2.05.14 pm Meera Sodha
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Serves 4
  • 1 cup red lentils
  • 4 tablespoons canola oil, divided
  • 1/2 teaspoon fenugreek seeds
  • 2 teaspoons coriander seeds
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons cumin seeds
  • 3/4 teaspoon black mustard seeds
  • 12 fresh curry leaves
  • 4 shallots, finely sliced
  • 8 ounces butternut squash, cut into 1-inch cubes
  • 1 small eggplant (10 1/2 ounces), cut into 1-inch cubes
  • 4 medium, ripe tomatoes, chopped
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
  • 2 teaspoons tamarind paste
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons nice red chili powder
  • 7 ounces green beans, trimmed

Dal Makhani

Dal Makhani
Dal Makhani

This is a recipe for one of the world’s finest dishes, which comes from Punjab. It takes exactly 142 minutes and 47 stirs to make, and it is worth every single one. Give it time and it will reward you handsomely with the most captivating, indulgent dal you’ve ever eaten, full of earthy, smoky flavors, rich deep tomato, and warm buttery notes.

You’ll need to soak the urad beans the night or morning before you want to eat it (6 hours is fine), and put it on the stove on a low heat a couple of hours before eating. Ask anyone passing by to give it a stir. This dal can also be made a day in advance.

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Dal Makhani

6968cebe 2fa7 4d8c afdc 8c4ef7a9eed6  screen shot 2015 11 20 at 2.05.14 pm Meera Sodha
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Serves 8
  • 14 ounces urad dal
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus 2 tablespoons to finish
  • 2 large onions, finely sliced
  • 1 3/4-inch piece ginger, peeled and grated
  • 10 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 6 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1 3/4 teaspoons salt
  • 3/4 teaspoon nice red chili powder (or to taste)
  • 1 1/2 cups whole milk

Bengali Cholar Dal

Bengali Cholar Dal
Bengali Cholar Dal

This recipe uses chana dal, the split insides of the black chickpea. They’re naturally very flavorful and don’t need a lot of spicing to transform into a gorgeous, mild coconut dal. In Bengal, this is usually eaten with puri, which are little puffed fried breads, but I like to serve mine with a vegetable subji (dry curry), some punchy pickle, and rice or hot naan bread.

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Bengali Cholar Dal

6968cebe 2fa7 4d8c afdc 8c4ef7a9eed6  screen shot 2015 11 20 at 2.05.14 pm Meera Sodha
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Serves 4
  • 1 3/4 cups chana dal
  • 2 tablespoons mustard or canola oil
  • 3 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 1 1/2 inches ginger, grated
  • 3 medium, ripe tomatoes, chopped
  • 1 1/4 teaspoons nice red chili powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon turmeric
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1/3 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
  • 1 1/4 teaspoons salt
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • One 14-ounce can coconut milk
  • Toasted shredded coconut, to serve

Do you cook your beans from scratch or do you reach for the can? Tell us in the comments below!