Cool beans: Yasmin Alibhai-Brown has her finger on the pulse with her low-cost feast

Much maligned as worthy hippie foods, lentils and beans are staples in the Asian kitchen – and they'll make you a vast variety of delicious and nutritious low-cost feasts
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Indy Lifestyle Online

As the clouds of recession blow our way, it is time to turn to those basic, ancient foods that kept (and still keep) folk alive through real hard times. These staples have been eaten by humans for more than 4,000 years and are described in Sanskrit and ancient Egyptian texts. I speak of pulses – dependable, nourishing, still amazingly cheap, resistant, long lasting and not boring, not if you know them as well as many of us do.

In India, Pakistan and the Middle East, and across South America pulses are sustainers of life, as essential as water. As Madhur Jaffrey writes in her splendid Ultimate Curry Bible: "You can take meats, fish and vegetables away from an Indian, but you cannot take away his dhal." It is a pity that hippies, who never could cook, gave lentils and pulses such a poor reputation. Rehabilitation is long overdue. Sure, some can cause flatulence and bloating (there is a trick to avoid that given below), but if cooked skilfully, they are the ultimate, most warming of comfort foods. And absolutely indispensable in periods of uncertainty and want.

In the 1960s we were in Uganda, our homeland until Idi Amin took away that birthright in 1972 and forced us out. The place was fecund and lush, its soil so fertile even walking sticks would sprout, or so Winston Churchill joked when on a visit in 1907. Even with an abundant supply of fresh produce, both Asian and African Ugandans always made sure there were dried beans and or lentils in the store cupboards, just in case of wars, famines, and all those other disasters that suddenly arrive in tropical places, making inhabitants constantly jumpy and pretty canny.

When the Cuban crisis hovered over the globe, Jena, my mum, and Nuru, one of her close mates persuaded a van driver, Hussain, to take them shopping. The world was about to end and they went on a buying spree, filled the small van with gunnysacks of grain and pulses and freshly milled flour from some warehouse out of town. Mum brought her share into our small flat, and pushed the coarse brown bags under the beds. We would be fine, she said brightly, when those idiots on both sides threw nuclear bombs at each other. Vegetables and fruit would die, cows and goats and chickens would be pulverised, too, and all would starve. But we would survive on these dried goods.

The nuclear meltdown never came, and the pulses were feasted upon by weevils and friends. One day, Jena and I sieved the insects into a vat of just boiled water and then we had months of eating dhal, beans and grains. And very good they were, too.

Expediency and thrift turned to wonderful excess, like straw into gold. Adventurous new recipes were tried, old ones reawakened. The repertoire included Jena's coconut and chicken dhal, fritters made with black-eyed beans, sweet and sour moong soup and khichro, an all-in-one rich dish consisting of five different kinds of lentils, oats, cracked wheat and meat. I finally learnt to make it four years ago, and earned my colours.

In 1972, Britain was in crisis. Life was tough for everybody. Industrial disputes escalated, the economy juddered dangerously, Enoch Powell churned up racial hostility and Ted Heath was sinking like an ocean liner. We had little money and pulses were not available, except at flower power or Hari Krishna outlets. Jena thought then the end had truly come.

We had to eat potatoes, instead, inventively and variously prepared, but still potatoes. In the late Eighties, finally, good quality lentils and beans began to be sold nationwide and were cooked in small and homely Asian restaurants, too.

Edwina Currie's salmonella emergency, later the investigations into mass poultry farming and the resulting health scares made Jena give up on birds: "Don't want your chicken tikka – give me my plain khichri with a little milk, or yogurt or butter". Khichri (unlike the super luxurious khichro above) is dead simple – a boiled mix of pudding rice and un-hulled moong dhal, fed to toddlers, the aged and infirm. It is a kind of Miracle-Gro for the vulnerable and tended. In the week before she died, when Jena was in Ealing Hospital, containers of the thick, grey gruel was left by her friends, who hoped against hope it would bring her back to them.

Then came foot and mouth, and our household stopped eating meat and turned to pulses with a vengeance, just as Jena did in previous eras. The supper menu featured bean fritters and moong dhals, pigeon pea or pinto bean pillau, channa masala – spicy chick peas – and black dhal with cream eaten with thin rotis and fresh carrot pickle. In our mosque, new recipes were exchanged and they used to laugh and say, "These white people will not survive without meat, we will outlive them."

The best testimonial I can give lentils: in 1988, I ensnared my beloved English husband by cooking and serving him my exceptionally delicious dhal and spinach.

Pulses and lentils contain good proteins. They are versatile, obliging and mild and so can be pepped up and combined with a range of vegetables and meats. One chicken cooked with lentils can feed twice as many people as a plain chicken curry would. Or last twice as long.

Cooking with pulses requires forethought. If using beans – black, red kidney, pinto, black-eyed beans, chick peas, dried pigeon peas – they must be checked carefully for stones and grit, then washed, and soaked overnight. The water is then thrown away, and the beans boiled in salty water (vigorously for the first 10 minutes) to which you add bicarbonate of soda – 1/2 tsp for a mug of beans. This relieves noisy digestive rumbles and discomfort. When cooked – and different beans take different times – you can use them in a vast variety of recipes. With lentils, too, it is essential to pick them over as there are often small stones and husks that would spoil the best dish. These days, they can be cooked without soaking. The recipes that follow show just how varied are the ways of cooking pulses and lentils. Buy a gunnysack or two and stuff them under the bed. They will feed you for two years when, hopefully, the boom comes back.

Yasmin's coconut dhal

Serves 4

1/2 mug red lentils (masoor)
1/2 mug hulled moong lentils (as in the spinach recipe)
3 chopped tomatoes
4 mugs water
Salt to taste
1 tbsp sunflower oil
1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp crushed garlic
3 finely chopped hot green chillies
1 1/2 tins good-quality coconut milk
1 bunch of fresh coriander, finely chopped or whizzed
Lemon juice

Boil the dhals over medium heat with all the ingredients except the coconut milk, coriander and lemon juice. It should take half an hour. Beat with a balloon whisk to break up the lentils a little. Then add the coconut, coriander and lemon and boil for 10 minutes. Eat with rice. You can add boiled chicken pieces with the coconut to make a posher dish.

Tamarind sauce

Soak tamarind chunks in just-boiled water and cool. I use half a packet for half a pint of water. Sieve and add chilli powder, salt and sugar.

Yasmin's black-eyed bean fritters

Serves 4

1 1/2 cups (375 gm) black-eyed beans, washed then soaked overnight. Add a pinch of bicarbonate of soda.
1 medium onion
1 tsp crushed ginger and garlic mix – you can buy this ready made from Asian shops. It keeps well in the fridge.
2 small potatoes, boiled and mashed
2 green chillies, a bunch of fresh coriander and a little lime juice whizzed in a processor
Salt to taste
1 tsp cumin powder
Oil to deep fry

Whizz the soaked beans with a 1/4 cup of water until just broken up. Use the pulse button. Add the other ingredients and whizz again. Leave covered for 10 minutes. Heat the oil in a small wok or deep frying pan. Take small dessertspoonfuls of the mixture and gently lay down in the hot oil. After a couple of minutes, turn over and carefully carry on doing so until the fritters are nutty brown and crisp. Drain on kitchen towels. Serve with yoghurt, tamarind sauce or ketchup.

Yasmin's dried moong dhal with spinach

Serves 4

1 mug hulled moong dhal
1 packet frozen spinach
1 hot green chilli slashed open
5 chopped fresh tomatoes or a tin of chopped tomatoes
2 fat cloves of garlic
3/4 tsp turmeric
2 tsp mixture of cumin and coriander powder
Salt to taste
Lemon juice
1 tsp sugar
1/2 tsp black mustard seeds
5 grains whole fenugreek seeds
3 tbsp sunflower oil

Heat the oil and add the mustard and fenugreek seeds and the chilli. When they splutter, add tomatoes, turmeric, cumin and coriander. Cook over medium heat for six minutes. Add the dhal, salt and 2 mugs of water. Cover and cook over low heat for 10 to 12 minutes. Check once in a while. If the mixture looks too dry, add water, but not too much. The lentils are ready for the next stage when they are cooked but al dente. Add the spinach, lemon, sugar and cover again. Cook for 10 more minutes. Check after five to see if ready. Times are not exact.

Soak tamarind chunks in just-boiled water and cool. I use half a packet for half a pint of water. Sieve and add chilli powder, salt and sugar.