HOW TO SOAK LENTILS AND BEANS
When it comes to lentils and beans, prep is everything — raw and undercooked pulses, also known as legumes and peas collectively if not technically, are actually toxic because of a compound called lectin found in many varieties of them. Instead think of cooking lentils until they are comfortingly creamy and beans are soft and tender — which also means they are well and truly broken down, giving your body an easy job of converting them into nutrition that you can easily absorb. In the last 50 years or so, we’ve become very used to pre-cooked pulses in tins and plastic packets which, although they have the advantage of being ready to go and not making us so windy-pops (and the rest), are very low in Prana (life force) and absorb any harmful chemicals contained in the packaging, such as BPA. That’s just a couple of reasons why it’s so worth buying dried pulses, rinsing and soaking (usually overnight to help remove anti-nutrients such as lectins and phytates, make them easier to digest and quicker and easier to cook), then cooking them yourself. The prep is super important but you’ll often see recipes other places skipping the soaking part, and cooking lentils and beans in a much quicker time — for a more desirable appearance and “bite” — but this doesn't take into consideration digestion, which is the most important thing in Ayurveda!
Beans and lentils are a very cheap and versatile food source that contain both carbohydrates and protein, and form an absolute staple around the world. They are also one that traditional cultures know needs stringent prep — the ritual of which we have lost since our food culture has changed to incorporate industrially produced foods. Before we could access antacids and other digestive discomfort symptom suppressors easily, we would have been very particular about how, when and what we ate whenever we had the choice in order to avoid digestive discomfort that would prevent us from getting on with our lives, the wisdom of which would have become second nature when prepping food in the way of our parents and their parents before them.
Countries such as India, where vegetarianism is a way of life for many, are all up on cooking techniques to get the most out of pulses that can otherwise be very hard to digest and toxic to boot. People in those regions know to incorporate soaking, fermenting and cooking methods as well as appropriate spices to help make them more digestible and get the most from these ingredients — add to that the wisdom of Ayurveda with ideal food combinations, times of day to eat, the know-how of how to eat your food, and the Doshic understanding, and suddenly you have a huge knowledge base to take these simple foods to their most nourishing. That said, pressure cooking is very common throughout Indian households — maybe even absolutely relied upon, but several Vaidyas I have met have expressed that pressure cooking is not the right kind of cooking that we need, the old-fashioned long slow cooking method produces by far the best result.
So what are the easiest pulse varieties to work with and what’s a pea (as in split pea*), a bean (as in kidney), a legume (as in mung bean, which used to be a “bean” but is now reclassified as a legume) and a pulse (as in all of them)? My take is this: while at home I work with lentils — and usually split lentils (I’m talking mung dal — dal means “split” in Hindi — and red split lentils here) — as an everyday protein source that’s affordable, delicious, hearty, easy to cook (and quicker!) and easy to digest. Gram flour is a go-to when I decide to bake, as well as some other lentil/bean flours to make fermented batters for Uttapams (page 71 in East by West) and Handvo for example. When I do fancy making a bean dish (e.g with chickpeas, black beans or cannellini beans, rather than the much smaller mung beans popular in Ayurvedic cooking), I will make it from scratch where possible, soaking, boiling then long cooking the beans until completely tender — no al dente pls! Then when I’m out and about looking for a meal and unsure of the provenance of the meat/fish/dairy, I'll go for a lentil or bean dish that looks digestible — I have been known to ask the vendor if I can sample first, because there have been a few times where I’ve been served a completely indigestible dish of undercooked beans or lentils. One super cool restaurant even served them sprinkled on and practically raw!
While pulses are a brilliant store cupboard staple, and are best enjoyed within a year of harvest — in fact beans and split peas if improperly stored or old will never soften when cooked. Always wash your legumes first, soak if you can and bring to the boil before the long cook with spices (I like to especially make sure I’ve added asafoetida as a digestive aid that’s super tasty) which will vary in length of time (see below). A dump-and-go slow cooker method will only work for “my staples” mentioned below; otherwise boil first before you leave them to do their thing in a slow cooker.
Generally speaking I’d say a 1-cup measure of dried pulses that has been pre-soaked requires 3-4 cups of cooking water and yields 2-3 cups of cooked pulses. To soak, I generally rinse and then cover with triple the amount of fresh water, leave overnight on the countertop and rinse the next day. Forgot to soak overnight? Try a quick soak: pour over boiling water and leave to sit for 3 hours before rinsing and draining and proceeding with your recipe. To cook, generally speaking, bring to a boil in a large enough saucepan (remember, pulses may triple in size), remove any scum that comes to the surface, cover tightly, reduce heat and simmer until tender and add spices… Read on to find out how I group and cook some of my favourite lentils and beans!
MY ‘SPLIT’ STAPLES
Quick to cook and with no soaking required, these are the little guys I rely on in my day to day. Pulses in general are Pitta and Kapha pacifying but can easily aggravate Vata Dosha with their astringent and drying nature so take note — Vata is windy enough!! Mung dal is my go to as you’ll see below because it’s also good for Vata Dosha but I also rely on red split lentils (see below) because spicing them up and adding plenty of ghee and grounding veg easily counteracts their Vata aggravating nature.
MUNG DAL - Rinse, soak if you like, cook for 30 min or until completely tender
Whole mung beans are small and green and, according to Ayurveda, Tridoshic — good for all the Doshas. This may help to explain why for so many people following Ayurveda — Vata or not — it’s the go-to legume of choice as something quicker to cook and easier to digest on a daily basis. I like to soak them if I get a chance but otherwise just give them a really good cook. Whole mung beans are much easier to find in local supermarkets so these are my go-to when I can’t find split and I always soak them. The split (and usually hulled) variety known as mung dal (or moong dal) is almost unrecognisable as the same bean and easily confused with other smaller split lentils, so check the name on the packet rather than just the look of them! Mung dal makes the perfect Sattvic detox food in Ayurveda and is a staple in Indian households as part of kitchari, an everyday porridge-risotto.
RED SPLIT LENTILS - Rinse, soak if you like, cook for 20 min or until completely tender
Red split lentils (the whole lentil is known as masoor lentil) are easy to recognise and easy to find in the supermarket, a handy one to have on hand since just like the mung dal above soaking is a “can-do” not a must-do. Rinse them before using, soak if you can, then cook for around 20 minutes or until tender — these will literally fall apart into a delicious thick stew. Though they cook for about 10 minutes less than the mung dal, I use them less frequently as they can aggravate Vata Dosha. Try them in the cult East by West recipe, Gary Gorrow’s Rasta Dal (page 140).
FOR BIG STEWS
These are the beans and lentils I like to cook with every now and then when I get a hankering for, say, an Italian cannellini dish, Mexican black bean dish, or Middle Eastern chickpea dish. If you're cooking beans that don’t necessarily fall apart and you want to serve them in a drier dish, e.g. added to a pilaf or stir fry for example, rather than in soups and stews, then cook them in plenty of liquid, let them cool in their own broth and then save the broth as a base for your next soup. The prep looks long but really it’s just a bit of planning and a head start, then the rest is pretty easy.
ADZUKI BEANS - Rinse, soak for min. 8 hours or overnight, cook for 45 min to 1hr until completely tender
These little red beans (that almost look like the rusty reddish brown version of whole mung beans) are often used in Chinese and Japanese desserts (see my bean and jaggery fudge page 101 in East by West) and in the macrobiotic diet, and are some of the most digestible beans. I wish that we could easily find a dal version!
CANNELLINI BEANS, HARICOT (NAVY) BEANS (think baked beans!) and GREEN SPLIT PEAS (not green lentils — see below) take about the same amount of time.
BLACK TURTLE BEANS - Rinse, soak for 8 hours or overnight, cook for 60 to 90 min until completely tender
I love black turtle beans for their rich and earthy flavours, especially in soups and stews and for my black bean soup with avocado and lime page 169 in East by West.
Black eyed peas, lima (butter) beans, pinto beans, kidney beans and yellow split peas (not to be confused with mung dal) take about the same amount of time.
BROWN LENTILS - Rinse, soak for 8 hours or overnight, cook for 25 min or until completely tender
Brown lentils are another pretty easy legume to add at the last minute, plus you’ll find them in many supermarkets and local shops — try my brown lentil hotpot form East by West page 189 and watch me teach The Happy Pear how to make it.
Black (beluga) lentils, French (Puy) lentils and green lentils (not green split peas) take about the same time.
Although I’ve long been familiar with gram flour (similar to chickpea flour but much easier to find and totally interchangeable), the following lentils were all new to me until I started getting more into Ayurveda and playing with South Asian ingredients. The following hard dried legumes can be found split and hulled (skin removed), which you can grind into flour using a spice mill or power blender then use to make batters for a variety of delicacies popular in India. Fermenting or toasting the flour (or the dal before grinding) first ensures they are fully cooked in baked or steamed goods, and gets rid of the grassy taste (and possible side effects!). Keep the flours fresh by storing somewhere cool and keep them airtight — the greater surface area means they are more easily spoilt.
TOOR DAL - use as flour (see above), or as a dal rinse, soak for min. 8 hours or overnight and cook for 35 min or until completely tender
Toor dal, a yellow split lentil AKA pigeon peas, has a nutty and sweet flavour that’s lovely in a dal, soup or kitchari, though it takes much much longer to cook than the more Ayurvedic classic kitchari using mung dal.
URAD DAL - use as flour (see above), or as a dal: rinse, soak for min. 8 hours or overnight and cook for 1hr or until completely tender
Whole urad beans AKA black beans are very tough on the digestion. Hulled, these beans are distinctively white, and split (i.e dal) and ground (i.e flour) will be the easiest ways to digest them. I grind a batch fresh about once a month to use in the fermented uttapam pancakes (see page 71 in East by West).
CHANA DAL - use as flour, or rinse, soak and ferment the dal before cooking, or rinse, soak and cook for 2hrs or until completely tender
A type of brown/black chickpea also known as Bengal gram that has been split and hulled, chana dal looks a lot like yellow split peas and can be used to make your own gram flour (also known as besan). You’ll be able to find this in all good supermarkets, and find organic chickpea flour online or in health food stores. The gram flour, made from chana dal, is a go-to in my cooking and baking — find a whole host of recipes here.
Meanwhile check out the shop page for more inspiration on the ingredients I cook with.
* WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A PEA AND A BEAN?
Short answer? Not a lot. Technically, peas are a subcategory of bean, and are seeds from the Pisum sativum family of plants, whose stems are softer and more hollowed out than that of beans — that’s it! The difference is so small, and for that reason both terms get mixed up and used interchangeably, which is why each type takes so much explaining.