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Pulses and Beans - A Tasty Alternative to meat?

I myself have fond memories of lentils; I remember growing up, that my mother would cook both meat and lentil dishes. I now realise that that this not only gave us a varied and balanced diet but meant she could feed the family while keeping to a tight budget.

A recent visit to India opened my eyes to the fact that in the UK we rely heavily on meat as a primary source of protein. Pulses, including lentils, beans and peas, are not generally nearly so popular and some people don't eat them at all. This is in sharp contrast to India where, for example, lentils are commonly eaten every day and are often served with rice and a chapatti for breakfast or a snack. In fact, many regions in India have an almost exclusively vegetarian diet.

I myself have fond memories of lentils; I remember growing up, that my mother would cook both meat and lentil dishes. I now realise that that this not only gave us a varied and balanced diet but meant she could feed the family while keeping to a tight budget.

The debate about meat protein and the health benefits of alternatives continues to grumble on but one thing is for sure; protein is vital for repair and maintenance, so we all need to eat it.

What are meat proteins?

Simply, these are eggs, meat, chicken, poultry, seafood and dairy products. All contain the essential amino acids, vitamins and minerals you need to build proteins within your body. With the exception of dairy foods, most animal-based proteins contain very few carbohydrates. The recommended daily average (RDA) in England is 70g of red and processed meat per portion. Non-dairy sources of protein include eggs and meat alternatives, such as tofu, Quorn, textured vegetable protein and tempeh. A variety of different types of protein are needed to get the right mixture of amino acids, which are used to build and repair the body's cells.

What is the alternative to meat?

This is a whole rich area of pulses, such as beans, lentils and peas. All are a cheap, low-fat source of protein, fibre, vitamins and minerals. Soya and dairy products are another good alternative to protein derived from meat.

As well as being a great source of protein, pulses can be added to many dishes to add extra texture and flavour. They can be used straight from the tin or, with a little more time, prepared from dried. I like to use chickpeas and red kidney beans often in my recipes

With Indian cuisine pulses can be bought in three main categories: whole, split pulse with the skins on, and split pulse with the skins removed.

A pulse is a large dry legume that grows in a pod of one to 12 seeds. It includes beans, lentils, and peas, while lentils are small legumes shaped like a lens (wide in the middle and narrowed at the ends).

Dhal, with which many of us are familiar, is often translated as "lentils" but really refers to a split version of a number of lentils, peas, chickpeas (channa), kidney beans and so on. If a pulse is split into half, it is a dhal. For example, split mung beans are mung dal.

Pulses are often ground into flour and added to rice - a great example is Odhawa cake see recipe below.

Why be a lentil-lover?

In Indian cooking, lentils typically come in several varieties - red, green, yellow and black. In Gujarati cuisine I have used a range of lentils (dhals). It's important to rinse thoroughly, and check for stones or other foreign materials before cooking. Do remember to make sure they are cooked through - soft not crunchy is best!

• Lentils have a low GI, so are a perfect slow energy-release food

• Add iron and fibre to a diet

• Lentils can reduce inflammation, which is associated with everything from heart disease to cancer

• They are cheaper than meat so are great if you are on a tight budget

• Lentils boast high protein, dietary fibre, folate, vitamin B, minerals, and iron

• The fibre found in pulses may help lower blood cholesterol, so they are good for your heart

Recipe to share - Gujarati Ondhwa contains channa dhal and five vegetables, channa dhal [yellow gram], rice and turmeric powder in the flour.

Mum's Spiced Lentil Five-A-Day Vegetable Cake - Ondhwa

Gluten free and serves 8-10


200g Ondhwa flour

500ml Natural Yoghurt (sour is best)

380g Carrots (peeled weight)

360g Potatoes (peeled weight)

130g Frozen Peas (optional)

225g Onions

170g Spinach

30g Ginger peeled

20g Garlic - unpeeled

60g Coriander chopped

50g Fresh Fenugreek Leaves (Methi)

1 fresh green finger chilli

Dry ingredients to be put onto a small plate:

4tsp Sugar

3tsp Salt

¼ tsp Turmeric

8g Chilli powder

¾ - 1 tsp Bicarbonate Soda

Vagar ( tempering the oil)

3 tbsp vegetable oil

3 tsp Mustard seeds

3 tsp Sesame Seeds


1. Place the Ondhwa flour and yoghurt into a large glass bowl and mix well. Cover and set aside for four hours.

2. Slice the onion - leave aside.

3. Roughly chop the carrots.

4. Rinse the peas using warm water to help defrost them (optional).

5. Wash and roughly chop the spinach, fenugreek leaves and coriander.

6. Remove stalk from the green chilli, wash in cold water and chop up finely. Avoid touching your eyes when handling chillies and wash your hands thoroughly afterwards. Peel and chop the ginger and garlic.

7. Blitz the vegetables, coriander, methi (not the onion), garlic and ginger until it is coarsely chopped.

8. Add to the Ondhwa mixture. Now add the sliced onion, sugar, salt, turmeric, chilli powder and bicarbonate of soda. Mix thoroughly.

9. Transfer into a 10cm x 10cm oiled baking tin.

10. In a saucepan add 1.5 tbsp oil and turn the heat on to a medium flame. When hot, add the mustard seeds and allow them to pop, then the sesame seeds. Cook for around 15 seconds, allowing them to turn light brown in the oil. Using a spoon, add the spiced oil onto the Ondhwa and stir well. Flatten the top. Finally, repeat tempering the oil with the mustard seeds and sesame seeds and pour the oil evenly over the surface.

11. Cook in the middle of the oven for 55 minutes on 160-180ºC on a fan assisted setting, until a golden crust is formed and the cake is cooked through.

This dish is best eaten hot but is also delicious cold with a cup of tea.

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