I moved to the U.S. from India during my freshman year of college. During my junior year, when I lived on my own off campus, I cooked for myself quite a bit. One night I had a friend over and after learning that I’d never baked before, she decided to teach me. She went to grab some flour from my pantry and exclaimed, “Wow! You have all these Mason jars filled with lentils in so many different colors. I didn’t even know lentils came in all these colors. Wait a minute, are these lentils or beans?” I was so confused. “What? You don’t have all of these in your pantry?” I asked.
That’s when I realized that not everyone grows up eating dal (Hindi for “lentil”) for dinner every night. Dal is a staple in South Asia, specifically Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh. As a child I used to watch my grandmother and mother as they prepared it; right before serving they tempered it with ghee and spices and garnished it with chopped cilantro, and it was almost always accompanied by a curried vegetable and roti, and on special occasions rice. We had different dals almost every day of the week — if we had company over it was dal makhani, a super-hearty dish cooked and simmered for hours (or sometimes overnight) with spices and cream. If anyone in the family had an upset stomach my grandmother would make yellow moong dal, which is very easy to digest. These days the first meal I cook when we get home from vacation is dal chawal, which is freshly-cooked yellow lentils with garlic, ginger, and spices, tempered with cumin seeds and garam masala. This meal takes me right back to my childhood, when life was simple and uncomplicated and my days were filled with schoolwork and evenings with family and food.
I’m certainly not the only person who has a strong connection with these little legumes, though; lentils and beans are considered some of the oldest foods on the planet. In fact, the use of lentils has been traced back as far as 6750 BC in parts of present-day Middle East. Chickpeas, lentils, and fava beans have been found in Egyptian tombs that date back at least 4,000 years, which is about the same time (~1500 BC) that parts of present-day Asia were growing and using soybeans. Meanwhile, in a completely different part of the world, Native Americans and Mexicans were working with the haricot bean, a diverse category that includes runner beans, kidney beans, and lima beans. The haricot is so adaptable that it became a staple crop.
Not only are legumes ancient and flavorful, they’re good for you, too! They help with digestion as they are rich in fiber and essential amino acids, they’re a great source of vitamins, electrolytes, and potassium, and they’re a wonderful source of protein. According to Dan Buettner, an expert on the eating habits of Blue Zone communities, “The cornerstone of every longevity diet in the world is beans. No matter where you go in the world, people living a long time, they’re eating about a cup of beans a day. It probably yields them an extra four years of life expectancy. Every 2 extra ounces of beans you add to your diet, you lower your mortality rate about 9 percent.”
We all know how canned lentils and beans work — you just open the can and rinse well — and in a pinch I’ll use those, but I prefer to use dried lentils and beans. They require a little more planning because they need to be soaked before cooking, but they’re so much cheaper than canned that it’s an easy decision for me! And it’s only made easier by my handy instant pot. Gone are the days of cooking beans in a pressure cooker; this appliance eliminates smells and mess, and just creates beautiful, perfectly cooked legumes. Seriously, the instant pot is a game-changer; I highly recommend investing in one! (And if you do, a great instant pot recipe to try is my Dal Chawal. And if you have any left over, try making some Dal Chawal Arancini Balls!)
These amazing little legumes have nourished countless generations and will keep on nourishing us as long as we keep eating them. I hope the recipes below inspire you to include more beans and lentils in your diet.
Herb Lentil Salad
This refreshing bean salad is a colorful rainbow packed with flavor. You can prep all ingredients ahead of time and quickly toss it together, just make sure to refrigerate it!Prep Time: 10 minutes Cook Time: 20 minutes Servings: 12Ingredients:
2 cups green lentils (dry)
1/2 cups grape tomatoes (diced)
1/2 cup red bell pepper (diced)
1/2 cup English cucumber (diced)
1/3 cup flat parsley leaves (chopped)
1/4 cup cilantro (chopped)
1/4 cup mint (chopped)
3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
3 tbsp lemon juice
2 cloves garlic (grated)
1 1/2 tsp cumin powder
1/2 tsp red pepper flakes (optional)
1/2 tsp salt (to taste)
Black pepper (to taste)
1 avocado (peeled, pitted, sliced)
Wash lentils in cold water.
Cook lentils in about double amount of water used for rinsing, letting simmer until cooked well but not mushy (about 15 minutes).
Once lentils have cooled down, place in wide salad mixing bowl and add tomatoes, red bell pepper, cucumber, parsley, cilantro, and mint.
In other bowl, mix garlic, cumin, oil, lemon juice, red pepper, salt, and pepper.
Stir dressing with other ingredients and toss well, adjusting seasoning to taste.
Add diced avocado at very end and toss.
Let rest at room temperature or in refrigerator for 10-15 minutes before serving.
South Indian-Style Dal
This one-pot dal is absolutely bursting with South Indian flavors like curry leaves, mustard seeds, and coconut milk. My family enjoys it with steamed basmati rice.
They eat beans mostly, this old yellow pair.
Dinner is a casual affair.
Plain chipware on a plain and creaking wood,
Two who are Mostly Good.
Two who have lived their day,
But keep on putting on their clothes
And putting things away.
And remembering …
Remembering, with twinklings and twinges,
As they lean over the beans in their rented back room that is full of beads and receipts and dolls and cloths, tobacco crumbs, vases and fringes.