by Shubhra Krishan

Ayurveda, the 5000-year-old system of healing from India, recommends a vegetarian diet. An important part of this diet is beans or legumes: they are relatively inexpensive, besides being generally high in complex carbohydrates, protein and fiber, and relatively low on fat.

Legumes are not only highly nutritious, they are very versatile, lending themselves to all kinds of dishes and combining marvelously with grains, vegetables and spices. Their buttery texture and subtly nutty flavor makes them a protein-rich treat.

Legumes are classified as lentils, beans, or peas, and all of them are basically seeds from specific plants. Varieties of dal (also called dahl), often mentioned in Ayurvedic cooking, are legumes. Vaidya Ramakant Mishra, renowned Ayurvedic practitioner and Director of Maharishi Ayurveda's Product Research and Development, says legumes are astringent in taste. They help build all the seven types of dhatus or body tissue, especially muscle tissue, which makes them especially important for individuals on a vegetarian diet.

In Ayurvedic nutrition, legumes are often a part of almost every meal of the day. They are also used to make desserts and snacks. The protein in legumes is a very different protein from that which is found in meat products, cheese, eggs, and fish. Vegetarian protein from legumes requires some effort to digest and individuals new to legumes will find it very helpful to use spices that help digestion such as asafetida, cumin seeds, fresh ginger, and black pepper. Adding these spices to legume dishes will help to reduce any side effect such as bloating or gas that beans are often associated with.

It is best to add legumes gradually to your diet if they are new additions to your diet. With regular intake, your body will adapt to them and enable you to digest them better and better. You can slowly increase your intake over time to levels that are comfortable for you.

The easiest to digest of all the beans is yellow split mung dal. Yellow mung beans are green mung beans that has been hulled and split. This dal helps to balance all three doshas and is the quickest cooking of all the dals. It takes only 20 minutes to cook without any soaking time. Be sure to properly rinse the beans with water before you use them and look out for small pebbles or twigs.

There are three basic ways to prepare and use legumes:

1. Legumes are soaked in water overnight and then cooked the next day by being boiled in water. Spices can be added while cooking or lightly fried in oil or clarified butter after cooking. Vegetables and grains may be added while cooking to create hearty stews. These legumes can be poured over rice or used for dipping flat breads such as Indian chapati bread or Middle Eastern pita bread.

2. Legumes can be soaked for several hours and then ground into a paste with a food processor to make dumplings, fritters, and desserts.

3. Legumes can be ground into flours to make dough for breads and for desserts and puddings.

If you plan to make legumes a regular part of your diet, I'd suggest investing in a pressure cooker, which will help speed up cooking times and cook many dahls without pre-soaking. It also helps cook legumes to butter-soft consistency, which Ayurveda recommends for easier digestibility. Different pressure cookers have different time mechanisms, so you will have to experiment to figure out ideal cooking times for each variety of beans or lentils you cook.

The following is a list of commonly used legumes:

Here are some recipes that demonstrate the versatility of legumes:

Fresh Bean Sprout Soup
Serves four

1 carrot chopped in 1/2 inch pieces
2 sticks of celery chopped in 1/2 inch pieces
1 Tbls. Oil or clarified butter
1/2 teaspoon ajwain seeds (available at Indian grocery stores)
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/2 teaspoon black mustard seeds
1 inch fresh ginger minced
3 cups fresh mung sprouts
3 cups fresh lentil sprouts or other sprouts of your choice
2 tomatoes diced
3 cups vegetable stock
salt and pepper to taste

In a stainless steel soup pot, heat the oil or butter. Add brown mustard seeds. When they start to pop, add the cumin and ajwain seeds. After one minute add the fresh ginger, celery, and carrots. Cook for 5 minutes and then add the sprouts. Stir and cook for several minutes. Then add the vegetable stock and tomatoes. Slowly bring to a boil and then back to a slow rolling boil. Cook for about 30 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste. Puree in a blender and garnish with fresh sprouts.

Kidney Bean Soup
Serves four

1 cup dried kidney beans
5-6 cups of water
2 inch piece ginger, grated
2 tablespoons fresh cilantro, chopped
2 tablespoons clarified butter or olive oil
1 teaspoon black mustard seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon freshly ground coriander seeds
5 curry leaves (available at Indian grocery stores)
1 pinch hing (asafetida)
1/2 teaspoon ajwain
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
one pinch cinnamon
1/2 cup carrots, diced
1 celery stick, chopped into 1/2 inch pieces
1/2 cup fresh spinach leaves
salt and pepper to taste

Soak beans in water overnight. Drain and discard water. In a large soup pot, melt the clarified butter. Fry black mustard seeds until they pop. Add cumin, hing, ginger, ajwain, coriander and curry leaves. Sauté for about one minute. Add the beans and stir once. Add the fresh water, turmeric, cinnamon, carrots and celery and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a low boil and cook about 25 minutes or until the beans are soft. Add the spinach and salt and pepper to taste. Cook for about 10 more minutes. Garnish with fresh cilantro and serve with rice.

For more information on Ayurvedic nutrition and for dozens of appetising vegetarian recipes, visit Maharishi Ayurveda's website www.mapi.com