A legume is a plant belonging to the Fabaceae (or Leguminosae) family. The seeds of these plants are dried and used as food. Legume seeds are also known as pulses and form an important food crop all over the world. Beans, lentils and peas, all belong to the legume family – even the peanut is a legume, and not a nut. Some legumes are grown for fodder – such as lupins, clover, alfalfa. The fruit of the legume is known as a pod, which ripens and splits open, releasing the seeds that line either one or both sides.
Leguminous plants play an important role in the ecology as they fix nitrogen in the soil. Their roots have nodules which are hosts to certain bacteria called rhizobia. These bacteria convert the nitrogen (N2) from the air to a form of nitrates known as N3 or NH3 that gets fixed in the soil. These nitrates enrich the soil and act as a natural fertilizer. Legumes can thus be planted in soil that is depleted of nitrogen, to enrich it naturally. They are often used in crop rotation by farmers.
Legumes as food
Legumes were known to be an important crop in ancient civilizations of Asia, and continue to be an important food in Asian countries. Beans have also been found in the tombs of Egyptian pharaohs and of the Aztecs in South America. They are known to have spread to Europe by 6,000 BC and grew to become the staple food of the peasants and working class (as they continue to be in Asian countries, especially among vegetarian communities).
Legumes are an excellent source of protein, iron and fibre. They are low-fat and low-cholesterol. Thus they can be a healthy substitute for meat. Legumes also have phytonutrients, a group of plant compounds that are known to guard against heart ailments and cancer. Hundred grams of cooked legumes can supply two-thirds of an active human’s daily protein needs. It is, thus no wonder that nutritionists often classify them as super foods.
How Legumes can be used
- Boiled and added to casseroles, stews, salads or rice
- Pureed and added to soups and gravies
- Powdered and added to other flours for breads
- As daals and curries (Indian cuisine)
- Roasted and had as a dry snack
Did you know?
- Four of the most important families of Rome were named after legumes: Fabius (fava bean or Vicia faba), Lentulus (lentil), Piso (peas or Pisum sativum), and Cicero (chickpea or Cicer arietinum)!
Some common legumes
Peas and lentils Green pea Split green pea Chick pea or Garbanzo Middle Eastern chick pea (smaller, harder, browner) Split skinless chick peas (chana daal) Green moong bean (used for making bean sprouts) Skinned yellow moong Orange or Split red lentils (masoor daal) Indian brown lentils (masoor daal with skin) Puy lentil (a favorite French lentil) Yellow split lentil (pigeon pea or tuvar daal) Black lentil (urad daal or kala daal) Dried beans Fava Bean (Broad bean) Red kidney bean Black-eyed bean Borlotti bean Lima bean (Butter bean) Aduki bean Soy bean Black soya bean Navy bean (Boston bean) Pinto bean Black bean
Soya beans are considered to be the king of beans as they contain all the amino acids needed to make a complete protein, as found in meat.