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Culinary nostalgia is a powerful thing. I get hit with it a couple of times a day at minimum. My grandmother’s dal, my mother’s pickle, my mother-in-law’s spicy bitter gourd, Mumbai’s boardwalk pav bhaji, street chaat...and mung beans. Yes, mung beans.
In World Vegetarian,
MJ Madhur Jaffrey says mung beans have an ancient provenance. They originated in India and were carried to China and other East Asian countries by early travelers; today, you can find them in morning porridges, stews, and pancakes across the continent. One of the most commonly cooked beans in North India, mung beans feature into a myriad of dishes. Khichdi, for example, is a pillowy soft pilaf made out of rice and mung beans. You can put this speedy meal together while doing 100 other things. My mother often churned it out after coming home from a trip, exhausted from the journey.
Unlike most other beans, mung beans are easy to digest, gas-free, and don’t take too long to cook, though they do require some advance planning. But once you’ve done it, you have a vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, and grain-like base packed with protein, which can be used and repurposed over the course of the week. Bulk up a salad with sprouted mung beans, or cook the soaked beans with Indian spices like coriander, cumin or garam masala, top with diced red onions, tomatoes, and cilantro, for a weekend breakfast or a light lunch. No time to cut and chop vegetables? Just heat up some neutral oil, add black mustard seeds, wait until they pop. Now, add a pinch of turmeric and soaked mung beans and salt and lime juice according to taste. Cook for 5 minutes and you have a healthy snack. Add a dollop of plain yogurt on top for creaminess. You can even replace quinoa or couscous with al dente beans (cooked in water for about 30 minutes, to take the raw edge off).
There are a few different types of mung beans:
Unhulled, Whole Mung Beans: Shiny and bright green, whole mung beans can be sold sprouted as well as non-sprouted; the sprouted version is richer in fiber. Like any other bean, unhulled, whole mung beans can be consumed only after soaking them in water.
I forgo any fancy sprouting equipment and use the homegrown method I see my mother use. First, I soak the beans in water for eight hours, drain the water, tie the beans in a moist thin cloth, and set them aside. You will see sprouts breaking through the beans in a day. Keep them for one more day if you want every bean to have a tail. You could also get pre-sprouted beans in farmers markets or Asian, especially Indian, grocery stores.
To turn the soaked unhulled mung beans to a creamy base for dal (typically eaten with rice) or bean soup, cook them in water (for 1 cup of dried beans, use 3 cups water) at medium heat for 1 to 1 1/2 hours. After that time, mung beans start breaking down (unlike other beans, like chickpeas). Some of them retain their shape and some break down to mush—you can cook them more or less, depending on the texture you prefer. Once cooked, soaked mung beans become creamy and acquire the taste of whatever spices or vegetables are added to the dish you’re making. I like to enjoy them with opo squash, tomatoes, ginger, and coriander powder, but the combinations are endless. Sprouted mung beans have a raw, crispy bite, which works perfectly for salads—and, conveniently, you don’t need to cook them if you’re using them in salads.
This soft, almost mushy texture and benign taste of cooked whole mung beans make adaptability into other cuisines easy. After cooking, these beans have raw, fibery taste to them. Replace black beans with mung beans in chili for a hearty winter dish. Switch out half the portion of garbanzo beans with whole mung beans in falafel. They will make the falafel lighter and easier to digest, and also make them moist from the inside after frying.
Unhulled, Split Mung Beans: These mung beans have pale yellow insides but still have the green skin on them. These have more fiber than the hulled ones, and are faster to cook than the unhulled, whole variety. Use them as you would regular, unhulled, whole mung beans, but please note that there is no need to soak unhulled, split mung beans. They take about 50 min-1 hour to cook in water (cook them in 3 times the water), and they surrender to the flavor of herbs and spices added to them.
Hulled, Split Mung Beans: Yellow split and hulled mung beans find dozens of uses in Indian kitchens. Apart from dal and khichdi, mung bean fritters are popular throughout India. Sold on streets by hand-pulled carts, wrapped in newspapers or calendar paper, or fried at home on rainy, monsoon days, these fritters are crunchy, bite-sized pops eaten with cilantro chutney and sweet and sour date and tamarind chutney.
Try this savory, soaked whole mung bean pancake, too, a weekend breakfast staple of my childhood. Pair it with a green salad and turn it into a meal. As a child, I liked the pancake because of its green color and the crunchy chew every bite had. You should give these pancakes a try because they are easy to make—just make sure you plan to soak the beans. I like to eat this pancake with salsa and sour cream, or sometimes I just roll some grated carrot with some salt and lime juice (carrot slaw) inside it.
Mung beans are tasty, adaptable, easy to use, and can be added to multiple dishes. That they are nutritious is a collateral benefit.