Indian

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

October 27, 2016

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.

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.

This is pulses' moment and your chance to get better acquainted with them.

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.

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.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“I've always thought that pulses were a bean puree, similar to refried beans. This article seems to refer to all beans as "pulses". Why not just beans? Or legumes, if you want to be fancy? Anyone know the answer? On another note, I'm surprised that the one cooking implement that will shave off significant cooking time was not mentioned: the pressure cooker. It's double surprising since the author is Indian and the pressure cooker is used extensively in India. A batch of dried beans will cook in the pressure cooker in 20-35 minutes, depending on the type of beans. I don't bother with cooking lentils in my PC because they cook so quickly by conventional means. An added bonus and another time saver is that there's no need to presoak beans to be cooked in a pressure cooker.”
— cookinalong
Comment

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

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.

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.


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)

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.

Pudla

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

Order now

A New Way to Dinner, co-authored by Food52's founders Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, is an indispensable playbook for stress-free meal-planning (hint: cook foundational dishes on the weekend and mix and match ‘em through the week).

Order now

24 Comments

Betty May 9, 2018
I see that Richard's comment is still here after a year. Now there is a second inappropriate comment. Please remove it - it is unethical, and irrelevant from the discussion of pulses.
 
Betty May 11, 2017
Food52 - please remove the very inappropriate email below by Richard.
 
Patricia M. March 15, 2017
What exactly are you using when you say "nice red chili powder" -- ancho? A chili mix?
 
S January 21, 2017
What is meant by "nice red chili powder"? Is it the same kind of chili power used in Mexican/Tex - Mex cooking (ground chili peppers, cumin)?<br />
 
Susan S. November 5, 2016
Okay, one subject never covered in articles, noticed in recipes and a really big blow out...wait for it....wait for it...HERE IT COMES, is flatulence. Defined in part on Wikipedia. "Flatulence-producing foods are typically high in certain polysaccharides, especially oligosaccharides such as inulin. Those foods include beans, lentils, dairy products, onions, garlic, spring onions, leeks, turnips, swedes, radishes, sweet potatoes, potatoes, cashews, Jerusalem artichokes, oats, wheat, and yeast in breads. Cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts and other cruciferous vegetables that belong to the genus Brassica are commonly reputed to not only increase flatulence, but to increase the pungency of the flatus.[citation needed]".<br /><br />As you may have noticed, beans are first on the list!<br /><br />What do the East Indians and other ethnic ground who rely on a pulse based diet do to avoid just plain "old farts"?
 
Dianecpa November 5, 2016
Many of the spices used in Indian cooking also reduce flatulence in addition to adding flavor and other health benefits. Ask Wikipedia, there is information there.:)
 
merganser January 20, 2017
By eating pulses regularly, the intestinal flora become accustomed to the diet and gas production decreases markedly. I know this works because I eat beans almost daily and no long have problems with excess intestinal gas.
 
Vivek R. March 18, 2017
Most recipes will call for cumin as a part of the spice mix. In traditional North Indian meals, especially ones with sit-down buffets (called thalis), it is customary to start the meal with water mixed with cumin and mint. There's also buttermilk mixed with a hint of coriander and (again) cumin. Most South Indian meals tend to have yogurt or buttermilk as a part of the meal in lieu of the cumin-water drink. <br />Again, over time, your body does get used to it.
 
marsiamarsia October 31, 2016
Before discovering FOOD52, I thought that "pulse" was the Indian word for lentils and other such peas or beans used to make dal/dahl, but after exhausting all other methods of reaching a definitive answer, I broke down and checked my dictionary (Webster's Collegiate), which says the word "pulse" comes to us from the Middle English word "puls," which came from the Old French "pouls" meaning "porridge," which came from the Latin words "pult, puls," probably from the Greek "poltos.") It's been an English word since the 13th Century, and its meaning today is: [ahem] "the edible seeds of various leguminous crops (as peas, beans, or lentils); also: a plant yielding pulse." So, just about everyone speculating in the Comments below is correct about "pulse"--in one way or another!
 
sheila October 31, 2016
'Legume' is more of a botanical term, as it describes peas, beans, even peanuts. The word 'pulse' is much misused in culinary literature.
 
silverspringcat October 31, 2016
I always do dried beans because they are so much cheaper - more bang for the buck and I can get organic and don't have to worry about the lining of the cans (BPA). However, I am fortunate enough to live where I have many markets that sell beans in bulk. Now with the instant pot I can cook dried beans in 15-20 minutes with no soaking needed for any kind of bean.
 
Betty October 31, 2016
Canned beans, with the exception of kidney beans, are not widely available where I live. Some imported canned beans are available at certain shops, but they are very expensive. Dried beans, on the other hand, are quite cheap. I therefore regularly prepare a 1/2 kilo bag of beans, usually chick peas or white beans, and freeze them in small batches (eachh one has approximately the normal amount in cans. I can then thaw them as needed for my favorite recipes. I usually cook them in the pressure cooker, after soaking overnight. I now use salt when cooking, believing, as a previous commenter said, that the result is more flavorful than adding salt at the end. We don't have dried kidney beans here, so I use the canned version when I make chili. I always thought that 'pulses' was the British term and 'legumes' the American term. I could be wrong, though. For me the word beans is too broad, as it also refers to various kinds of green beans.
 
Betty October 31, 2016
After doing a bit of Googling, I found that the most common definition of 'pulse' is the edible dry seed of plants in the legume family. By the way, 2016 is the International Year of Pulses, in celebration of their great nutritional value and ease of growing in developing countries, especially because they need very little water in comparison to other crops.
 
sheila October 30, 2016
'Pulses' is the term for cooked legumes. Another vocabulary error found: 'Dal' is the split version of peas, etc., not a type of dish. Therefore one would not "cook to a silky dal."
 
Mary October 30, 2016
Dal Makhani is typically made with ginger garlic paste widely used in Indian cooking. Also tomato paste, cream, cumin, clove, cardamom and several other ingredients. This version would be a pallid reflection of Indian cooking the essence of which is the brilliant use of many spices.
 
cookinalong October 30, 2016
I've always thought that pulses were a bean puree, similar to refried beans. This article seems to refer to all beans as "pulses". Why not just beans? Or legumes, if you want to be fancy? Anyone know the answer?<br />On another note, I'm surprised that the one cooking implement that will shave off significant cooking time was not mentioned: the pressure cooker. It's double surprising since the author is Indian and the pressure cooker is used extensively in India. A batch of dried beans will cook in the pressure cooker in 20-35 minutes, depending on the type of beans. I don't bother with cooking lentils in my PC because they cook so quickly by conventional means. An added bonus and another time saver is that there's no need to presoak beans to be cooked in a pressure cooker.
 
Fresh T. October 30, 2016
Pules = dried peas, beans, lentils, and chickpeas. Here's a better explanation https://pulsepledge.com/
 
Fresh T. October 30, 2016
These dishes look amazing! I think the butternut squash sambhar is 1st up on the list. Thank you for sharing these! I love your book as well.
 
marsiamarsia October 30, 2016
Dear Meera Sodha: This is a wonderful article! So much helpful information, so many tempting recipes! I can hardly wait to try them all! Many thanks.
 
Casey S. October 30, 2016
this is great!
 
Dianecpa October 30, 2016
Scratch, rarely buy canned.
 
MikeJSmith October 27, 2016
You wrote "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."<br /><br />Actually, the opposite is true. See http://www.seriouseats.com/2016/09/salt-beans-cooking-soaking-water-good-or-bad.html
 
dinner A. October 27, 2016
The Serious Eats article linked does not address acid, only salt (which I can attest to, is fine to add while beans cook). Acid on the other hand really does slow down cooking, in some cases by a lot. For example, this is why traditional baked beans are cooked for so long; they are quite acidic from molasses and tomato.
 
Starmade October 30, 2016
I have the same experience - not just with beans - that acid will slow softening in proportion to how much acid there is, so I hold off on ingredients like wine and tomatoes in a lentil stew till the pulses are about 2/3 cooked. I'm glad to know it is a myth about salt though, as I've dutifully held back on salt too, while always feeling it would be better for the dish to add it earlier.