They are an intrinsic part of every Indian’s meal. They are eaten as a staple or as a snack; they are part of something sweet and something savoury; they come in many forms, colours and flavours. They are pulses–the most sustainable, affordable, and versatile food items since time immemorial.
While we do not consciously think about them, we are making decisions regarding their use every day, for every meal—soak or saute, grind or roast, pressure cook or slow simmer, what spices go best with each one, and what accompaniments will make it a perfect meal?
Every Indian kitchen has a variety of pulses that go under the umbrella term of “dal”. Technically, pulses, also known as legumes, are the edible seeds of leguminous plants cultivated for food. Dried beans, lentils and peas are the most commonly known and consumed types of pulses.
Interestingly pulses do not include crops that are harvested green (e.g. green peas, green beans)—these are classified as vegetable crops. Also excluded are those crops used mainly for oil extraction (e.g. soybean and groundnuts), and leguminous crops that are used exclusively for sowing purposes (e.g. seeds of clover and alfalfa).
Pulses have formed an essential part of diets in many parts of the world for thousands of years and thus humans have cultivated this ancient food crop for centuries. Scientific studies of archaeological remains have suggested that people from modern-day Turkey grew chickpeas and lentils in 7000-8000 B.C. Evidence of lentil production has also been discovered from Egyptian pyramids, and dry peas were found in a Swiss village—dating back to the Stone Age. Experts have hypothesized that chickpeas production started to spread from the ancient Mediterranean region between Morocco in the west and the Himalayas in the east before 3000 BC. There are even mentions of certain pulses in the Vedas, which are widely believed to be at least 4000 years old.
From the Yajurveda onwards, Sanskrit literature has mention of the three Ms—mudga (green gram or mung), masura (pink gram or masoor) and masha (black gram or urad). The Buddha is said to have endorsed all three Ms for regular use. The three pulses continue to be widely used in all parts of India in different dishes and forms. It is believed that when Iranian scholar Abu Rayhan al-Biruni came to India 1,000 years ago, he discovered the daily meal of the average Indian, the porridge-like khichdi, a mixture of rice and lentils. Traditionally, the definition of a balanced meal in most parts of India always consisted of pulses, along with cereals, vegetables, fruits, and milk products.
Pulses are indeed what we call “superfoods”. The tiny seeds are loaded with nutrients, fibre, vitamins, and minerals. They are gluten-free and have high protein content, making them an ideal source of protein particularly in regions where meat and dairy are not culturally or economically accessible. Pulses are low in fat and rich in soluble fibre, which can lower cholesterol and help in the control of blood sugar. They are a great source of vitamins and minerals such as iron, zinc and magnesium.
Pulses are a rich source of fermentable fibre, which feeds intestinal bacteria and promotes the assimilation of nutrients, thus facilitating proper immune system functioning. Because of these qualities they are recommended by health organizations for the management of non-communicable diseases like diabetes and heart conditions. Pulses have also been shown to help combat obesity.
Pulses are important not just for human consumption, but also for the farmers who cultivate these. They are an important crop because they can both sell them and consume them, which helps farming families maintain food security. They provide economic stability as compared with perishable crops as they can be dried and stored for a long time.
Pulses are farmer-friendly as well as friends of the environment. The nitrogen-fixing properties of pulses improve soil fertility, which increases and extends the productivity of the farmland. Using pulses for intercropping and cover crops can promote field biodiversity and improve soil microbiome, while keeping harmful pests and diseases at bay.
Pulses are highly drought and frost-resistant, which makes them suitable for a wide range of climatic conditions and environments. Pulses are also known to be climate-smart, which means they can easily adapt themselves to weather fluctuations. They have a low water footprint. As compared to others, pulses only require one-tenth of the amount of water to grow and therefore can be easily grown in semi-arid conditions.
Pulse crops have a lower carbon footprint than most foods because they require a small amount of fertilizer to grow, and they help to naturally introduce nitrogen in the soil. One of the advantages of biological nitrogen fixation is that it provides a natural slow-release form of crop nitrogen supply that matches crop needs. By reducing dependence on synthetic fertilizers which release greenhouse gases during both their manufacture and use, pulses contribute to climate change mitigation.
While pulses have always been integral to our daily diets, they are usually not seen from these other perspectives. Recognising their multi-dimensional value the United Nations proclaimed 2016 as the International Year of Pulses (IYP). The celebration of the year, led by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), was aimed to increase the public awareness of the nutritional and environmental benefits of pulses as part of sustainable food production.
In December 2018, the United Nations General Assembly designated February 10th to be marked as World Pulses Day every year, to recognise, and remind of, the important link of pulses to the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
Today, as the world celebrates World Pulses Day, let’s take a look at our own meals and list the numerous forms of pulses on our menu for the day. And as we relish our dal baati-churma, sambar-idli, rajma-chaaval, cholar dal-luchi, or even the simple khichdi, let’s put our hands together for the pulses!