Dal, Protein and Bepuzzlement

I perused the available items in Sainsbury’s, thinking about buying something for dinner to save me cooking as I had a long day at work the next day. I rejected a cheap pizza, a posher pizza, fresh gnocchi, cannelloni, vegetable lasagne, macaroni cheese and vegetable korma. Too much cheese, too many refined carbs, not enough fibre, too much fat, not enough protein that wasn’t just cheese, too few vegetables and too many calories. I tried the freezer aisle – too much fake meat, too much cheese and pastry, too many calories, not enough fibre, too few vegetables, not enough protein that wasn’t cheese. And this is why I cook. A combination of vanity, some knowledge of nutrition and a very keen awareness of the genes on the maternal side of my Dad’s family.

For this reason, I eat relatively few pre-prepared or processed foods. With great interest, I read about Carlos Monteiro, a Brazilian doctor and academic, who along with his team coined the phrase ‘ultraprocessed food’ and developed the Nova food classification system to determine how processed a foodstuff is. Ultraprocessed foods (UPFs) refer to items made from already highly refined items such as vegetable fats, flour and wheys. Industrial ingredients like emulsifiers are then added to create familiar food items. It’s likely you wont recognise many of the ingredients in a UPF. Acidity regulator anyone? Monteiro has hugely influenced Brazil’s food policy, which from 2014 began advising people to steer clear of ultraprocessed foods, and to cook and eat traditional foods, in an attempt to reduce rapidly rising rates of obesity. in young people. (I have referenced two articles below which you can read if you’d like to know more about UPFs and the rationale for limiting them.) Rita Lobo, a food writer who works to promote the healthy eating guidelines on her website commented, “In Brazil, it doesn’t matter if you are rich or poor, you grew up eating rice and beans. The problem for you [in the UK], is that you don’t know what your ‘rice and beans’ is.” (Wilson, 2019)

This struck a chord with me. What is the UK’s version of rice and beans? Bee Wilson comments, ‘In Britain and the US, our relationship with ultra-processed food is so extensive and goes back so many decades that these products have become our soul food, a beloved repertoire of dishes. It’s what our mothers fed us. If you want to bond with someone who was a child in 1970s Britain, mention that you have childhood memories of being given Findus Crispy Pancakes and spaghetti hoops followed by Angel Delight for tea.’ (My mother fed me homemade kichari and chapatis.)

It seems the British did once eat beans, along with the rest of Europe. The importance of the spreading cultivation of legumes in the 10th century is not to be underestimated, as Umberto Eco outlines in his essay How The Bean Saved Civilisation: “Working people were able to eat more protein; as a result, they became more robust, lived longer, created more children and repopulated a continent … Without beans, the European population would not have doubled within a few centuries, today we would not number in the hundreds of millions and some of us, including even readers of this article, would not exist.”

Fava or broad beans were widely grown in the UK but in the 19th century were relegated as food for the poor. I’m curious about the way meat seems to have gone from a luxury to an every day food without which a meal must be lacking. Meat seems to believed to be the most important source of all necessary nutrients. The assumption seems to be that vegetarians and vegans need to worry about their diet but that curiously meat eaters don’t. You might have a point if I lived on pre-prepared processed foods and ready meals. But I don’t. Looking at some of the meals available, I wonder if meat is the only source of nutrients other than dairy in there.

The British eat far fewer pulses than other nations. What do the British eat pulse-wise? Baked beans, mushy peas, the occasional lentil soup and indeed pease pudding, which is similar to a thickened lentil soup. Both the marrowfat pea and the haricot bean are ‘New World’ beans from the US. Marrowfat peas were introduced as a substitute for fresh peas in winter; mushy peas made from them were added to fish and chips in the 1880s. (While it may or may not contain lentils, the nut roast was invented in 1908 by Harvey Kellogg, a member of the Temperance Society, at his Battle Creek Sanitarium (sic). Another American import.)

Baked beans are made with the haricot bean, a common crop in the US. Native Americans had long eaten beans along with maize and squash. The Pilgrim Fathers began eating beans as they did not cook on a Sunday. A pot of beans made the night before could be kept warm until the next day to provide a square meal. Made by stewing beans, pork and molasses, they became a staple to the extent that they were known as Boston Beans and Boston was called Bean Town. Tinned in the 1800s, baked beans were sold in Fortnum&Mason as an exotic luxury in 1886. It was due to wartime rationing that baked beans became a meat-free product. (Thring, 2011)

I think a lot of people would have you believe that lentils were invented in the 1960s by an old hippie named Gerald who had a long beard and an allotment and was probably friends with Jeremy Corbyn. Beans, lentils and pulses are however eaten across the world; they are a good source of protein, iron and zinc and are usually consumed with rice to form a complete protein. Beans, often pinto or black beans are staples throughout central and South America and the Caribbean.

Closer to home, the French eat lentil salads, soups and cassoulets. Diana Henry reminisced about French meals which included lentil salads in a piece for the Telegraph. The Spanish eat chickpeas and lentils too. I saw Jose Pizarro make a chickpea and tomato stew on television, as he enthused about how he much he loved it as a child and all the positive memories surrounding it. I have never bought a £3.75 jar of Brindisa chickpeas so can’t tell you what the fuss is about. Maybe I’ll treat myself to one once the Coronavirus isolation period has passed.

The Italians eat pulses; the Tuscans are known as bean eaters or mangiafagioli. Pasta and bean dishes are common in Italy. Minestrone soup has been absorbed by the British to the extent that it is a ubiquitous tinned item. Rachel Roddy’s blog offers a range of Italian recipes from her kitchen in Rome. I am struck by how many of them are based around vegetables and pulses. Chickpeas are ground into flour to make Ligurian farinata, a close relation of the socca pancake made in southern France. In Sicily, chickpea flour is made into deep fried panelle fritters.

The Arabic word for chickpea is hummus or houmous. (Not humus.) I bought a Moroccan cookbook second hand because it contained such beautiful pictures and it was cheaper than a trip to Morocco. It includes a recipe called homus, a simple dish flavoured with cumin and coriander. (I did some googling to find out more about the different Arabic spellings and found an ad for a queer Jewish cabaret night called Homos and Hummus.) Both the Israelis and the Palestinians lay claim to hummus but it’s made in Greece, Turkey and across the Middle East.

Falafel are similarly eaten throughout the Middle East, where they are made with chickpeas or fava beans (broad beans). In Egypt, you find ful mesdames and koshari, a dish of rice, lentils and vermicelli with a tomato sauce. Mejadra, made of rice, lentils and fried onions is eaten in Palestine. Further east, ash-e reshteh is an Iranian noodle soup made with chickpeas, butterbeans and yellow split peas.

Ethiopian Christians fast from meat and dairy regularly as part of their Orthodox practices. An Ethiopian meal comes with a variety of vegetable and lentils dishes and fresh salad, served on injera, a type of fermented bread made with teff. Our lunch included a red lentil dish called misir wot. I noted with interest that masoor is the Hindi for red lentils. We also had lentil filled sambosas, although I must admit I preferred the texture of the lentils used to stuff kachoris.

Ethiopian food I tried in Madrid.

Dal is a staple in India. The protein in dal is very important for a population of whom many are dependent on white polished rice. Chana masala and rajma (kidney beans) are both Punjabi dishes. In Gujarat, they eat dhokla and khandvi, savoury snacks made with chickpea flour and yoghurt. Kadhi sauce, also made with yoghurt and chickpea flour is often eaten with rice throughout India. Chickpea flour batter is used to make pakoras and bhajis. We mainly made them with potatoes and cauliflower. (Once Vince mistook fresh chilis for those posh baby peppers and made pakoras out of them. We unknowingly bit into them, our eyes streamed, we called for yoghurt and wondered about ever letting him into the kitchen again.)

Poppadums, staple of the British curry house, are in fact made with ground rice and lentils. In south India and Sri Lanka, rice and dal are toasted and used in spice blends. Dishes are made using ground rice and dal. Idli, steamed rice cakes, are served with sambar, toor dal flavoured with sambar masala, coconut and tamarind. A batter of ground rice and dal is fermented and used to make dosas, a crepe filled with potato and accompanied with two kinds of coconut chutney and sambar. Ground lentils are also used make fritters – dahi vada in South India, soaked in yoghurt and garnished with tamarind chutney.

Further east, soy beans are turned into milk and tofu across Asia, products consumed by everyone, not just hipsters or bearded men with allotments. (You can perhaps tell from the brevity of this section, this is not one of my main areas of interest or knowledge.)

In this country, dal is eaten by middle class young women. In Emma Jane Unsworth’s Adults, the image conscious, social media obsessed narrator makes ‘dhal for dinner … and let me tell you, it was astonishing.’ But there’s still something not right about the way dal or pulses are served in this country. People still don’t seem to understand that it is part of a meal, not the main event. Leon does a lentil masala with brown rice and a Brazilian black bean box. Both are dull. The sort of thing that you might make when you are a student, can’t really cook that well and have nothing in the cupboard.

People want to know about the protein in the middle of the table on Sundays or at Christmas. (For protein must always be a big lump, that contains your recommended daily allowance. It couldn’t possibly be something that you get from eating of variety of different things throughout the day.) Paul McCartney said his late first wife created a turkey out of macaroni cheese so that he would have something to carve, dinosaur that he was (his words, not mine). I wonder about this – the inability to cope with a meal that looks different to what you’re used to. Should I have taken a metal thali plate to my grandmother’s at Christmas, saying that I was used to eating special occasion meals from a rectangular plate with five sections so I couldn’t possibly cope with anything else? Maybe I could have objected to the idea of pouring sauce over food, let alone the same sauce over everything. Maybe I could have demanded kadhi sauce instead of gravy, as we so rarely ate the latter. Perhaps I could have acted as if the family were trying to control us by cooking something other than what I was used to. Taking something away from us and IMPOSING THEIR CHOICES ON US!

We just ate food. We never felt any need to discuss the protein we ate. It was just there as part of food. Porridge, milk, yoghurt, cheese, pasta, homemade brown bread. (Actually, the bread was worth talking about – the oven warmed up the kitchen and the whole house smelt amazing.) Yes, we ate lentils and beans. Kichari made with rice, dal and veg. Rice, dal, subji and chapatis. The meal the sum of its complimentary parts. We enjoyed paneer on a Sunday. Visitors to the temple and customers at Govinda’s restaurant enthused about it, partly as they felt the texture was similar to chicken. People tell me my meals must be lacking texture without meat. It never even occurred to me that 20 out of my 21 meals in the week must be lacking or were in some way dissatisfactory because they didn’t include paneer. What is about chewy that you people are so utterly obsessed with?

Bee Wilson discusses attitudes to protein, suggesting it is the only safe nutrient left now that we’ve been advised to avoid sugar, fat and carbohydrates. She questions the current fixation with upping our protein intake when most people already have plenty of protein in their diets. The protein bars, the hardboiled eggs in plastic pots in the fridges at Boots and Pret, the protein bites made from dried fruit and nuts (we of course made these at No. 23 before they were cool), the protein powders made of whey or dried peas.

I feel it’s a positive step that the protein obsession goes beyond meat and takes in other foods; the ever growing consumption of meat is crippling the planet. I recommend Liz Bonnin’s documentary on its shocking environmental impact, tackling some issues and perspectives beyond the usual arguments routinely raised. It seems quite easy to blame America. Where they go, we follow. Where their highly processed, low fibre, meat heavy, high fat and high sugar diets go, replacing traditional diets, diabetes, obesity and tooth decay follow. People have always sought to emulate the wealthy but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea, the American diet a case in point. This applies too to avocados, quinoa and almonds. Our Western hunger for them has had real negative impacts. Droughts in California due to the water needed to grow almonds, gang involvement in the avocado trade due to the lucrative demand for them and the rising prices of quinoa (a complete protein) which has rendered it unaffordable for people in Peru, resulting in increased levels of child malnutrition.

We ask what we will feed the planet, how we will meet their demand for protein. Fingers are often pointed at China, a populous nation eating ever more meat, arguably influenced by the West. Some suggest eating more insects (I’ll have the idli sambar, thanks), others suggest eating more beans (the UN even made 2016 International Year of Pulses), viewing both as an almost insurmountable challenge. It’s not a case of swapping burgers for bean burgers, which probably were invented by an old hippie named Gerald who had a long beard, an allotment and was friends with Jeremy Corbyn. Much of the world are very used to eating beans and have established cuisines that include pulses but how exactly we roll back the cultural imperialism of America and the appeal of the symbols of Western wealth, I don’t know. And neither do I know how we curb the power of the food manufacturing industry or the peculiar tendencies of the British to embrace meat-heavy aspects of new cuisines but reject the rest of it as something weird and special for Gerald.

Is there hope? I’d like to think so. Goop now promotes the Hemsley sisters’ kichari recipe. Christ. (Yes to kichari, no to Goop.) Dishoom has popularised dal and London eats dal now. The black house dal, dal makhani made with whole urad dal was widely touted as one of the reasons to buy its eagerly awaited cookbook and was included in the sneak previews in the broadsheets. To me, dal is something simple, quick, easy to make and healthy. This is none of the above, simmered for hours, with cream and butter added generously but it’s a good starting point. So here you are: give it a go.


Dishoom Restaurant (2019) Four classic Indian recipes from Dishoom. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/food/2019/sep/07/four-classic-indian-recipes-dishoom-chaat-dal-salad-jackfruit-biyani-chicken-makhani-curry

Eco, E. Best Invention; How The Bean Saved Civilization. New York Times. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/1999/04/18/magazine/best-invention-how-the-bean-saved-civilization.html

Henry, D. (2019) Why I’m returning to French food and cooking it more than ever. The Sunday Telegraph Available at https://www.telegraph.co.uk/food-and-drink/features/returning-french-food-cooking-ever/

Monteiro, C.A., Cannon, G., Lawrence, M., Costa Louzada, M.L. and Pereira Machado, P. 2019. Ultra-processed foods, diet quality, and health using the NOVA classification system. Rome, FAO.

Ottolenghi, O & Tamimi, S. (2012) Jerusalem London: Ebury Press

Thring. O (2011) Consider baked beans. Guardian Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/wordofmouth/2011/feb/22/consider-baked-beans

Roddy, R. Rachel Eats – Available at https://racheleats.wordpress.com/recipes/

Steenberg, H. (2016) Rediscovering British Pulses https://sustainablefoodtrust.org/articles/rediscovering-british-pulses/

Unsworth, E. J. Adults London: Borough Press

Wilson, B. Protein-mania: the rich world’s new diet obsession https://www.theguardian.com/news/2019/jan/04/protein-mania-the-rich-worlds-new-diet-obsession

Wilson, B. How ultra processed food took over your shopping basket. https://www.theguardian.com/food/2020/feb/13/how-ultra-processed-food-took-over-your-shopping-basket-brazil-carlos-monteiro

Vegetarian Christmas Menu Ideas from the McCartneys – Sunday Times (2019) Availaible at https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/vegetarian-christmas-menu-idea-recipe-plan-vegetable-wellington-paul-linda-mccartney-2019-0tbfxzvxr