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5 Most Common Legumes in Middle Eastern Cuisine (with Recipe Ideas)
Versatile, nutritious, delicious and affordable – let’s talk about legumes. Legumes are a hugely popular ingredient in Middle Eastern cuisine. From chickpeas to fava beans and lentils, there are several types of legumes that are essential in our cooking.
I’ll show you the 5 most popular legumes in Middle Eastern cuisine and how to prepare them. I’m also going to share some recipe ideas with you, so you can get cooking right away. Get ready for hummus, falafel and other Middle Eastern delights.
What are Legumes?
Legumes is an umbrella term for plants from the Fabaceae family. Legumes include lentils, beans, peas and even peanuts. Legumes come in different varieties. In total, there are over 18,000 types of legumes!
Besides their nutritional value, legumes are very versatile and tasty. In Middle Eastern cuisine, they are often used for vegetarian and vegan dishes.
Legumes Health Benefits
Legumes are nutrient powerhouses. They are particularly rich in proteins, iron, fiber, vitamins and minerals. Those valuable nutrients make legumes very filling. You won’t feel hungry anytime soon after eating a bowl of legumes.
Fiber-rich foods keep your digestive system and gut going strong and healthy. Modern Western diet is often lacking in high-fiber foods. Despite the popularity of low-carb diets (which have their uses), your body needs a daily dose of healthy carbs.
Adding legumes to your meals ensures a proper intake of good carbs (complex carbohydrates), proteins, fiber and other key nutrients. If you’re largely on a plant food diet, legumes make up for the protein and nutrient gap caused by cutting down on meat and seafood.
Legumes in Middle Eastern Cuisine
Some legumes are a staple food in Middle Eastern cuisine much like meat, cheese, and vegetables. You’ll find popular and classic recipe ideas with beans and lentils as the star ingredients.
Here you’ll learn about 5 commonly used legumes in Middle Eastern cooking.
Chickpeas (also called garbanzo beans) have been cultivated in the Middle East since 7000 BC. Can you imagine Middle Eastern cuisine without chickpeas? Me neither. In fact, world famous dishes like hummus and falafel are chickpea based dishes.
They come in two variations. The most common is the cream-colored Egyptian pea which is used in Middle Eastern cuisine. Besides, there is a smaller brown and black one which is grown in India, Mexico and Ethiopia. However, the latter type is not used in Middle Eastern cuisine.
Chickpeas can be purchased dried or canned. So what’s the difference, and when to use what?
Canned chickpeas are essentially soaked and precooked chickpeas which are ready to use. For dips and salads, you can perfectly use canned chickpeas.
Dried chickpeas need to be soaked in water overnight. Depending on the recipe, you can either use them right after soaking (e.g. for falafel) or boil them (e.g. for hummus, salads…).
In terms of taste, chickpeas are slightly nutty and buttery. Their mild taste makes them a wonderful ingredient for stews, salads, soups and dips.
2. Fava Beans
Fresh, tender and seasonal, fava beans (also called broad beans) are one of the oldest domesticated plants with Mediterranean origins. Fava or broad beans grow in pods much like green peas but are larger in size.
Fava beans remind me of weekends. The signature dish with fava beans in the Middle East is ful mudammas. It’s a hearty dish commonly eaten for breakfast. Fava bean stew is so nutritious and filling, that you’ll feel like taking a good nap after eating a bowl of it.
Fava beans can be found fresh, dried or canned. When buying fresh fava beans, you’ll first have to remove them from the pods. The beans are then blanched to remove the tough skin before cooking. Dried fava beans should be soaked before cooking, as this will greatly reduce the cooking time. Canned fava beans can be used right away.
In terms of taste, fava beans have a pleasantly mild nutty to buttery flavor. Dried beans have a milder flavor when compared to fresh ones.
3. Red Lentils
Lentils are definitely one of the ingredients that you’ll find in many cuisines across the world. And Middle Eastern cuisine is no exception to that.
There are countless varieties of lentils. Although they might look similar, they can greatly vary in taste and cooking time. The most common type of lentils in Middle Eastern cuisine is relatively small in size and easy and quick to prepare.
Red lentils are most common, but you’ll find the same type of lentils as yellow lentils too. Arabic lentils are available in three varieties – shelled, dehulled, and split. The split version is the fastest to prepare. At a Middle Eastern or Asian grocery store, you’ll find those lentils under the name Masoor Dal. Note that this is an entirely different type of lentil than Toor Dal (which has a much longer cooking time and a different taste altogether).
Lentils are a nutrient-rich, low-calorie food that are known for being particularly rich in proteins. In traditional Middle Eastern cooking, they are commonly used for soups and stews. Besides, lentils can be used as a substitute for meat, be it for burgers or moussaka.
When it comes to red or yellow lentils, I recommend that you buy the dried ones in the grocery store. They are really fast and easy to prepare, for which reason there aren’t many canned versions available. Soaking is not needed and the cooking time is as little as 15 minutes.
4. Green Lentils
If you’ve had lentil soup or stew before, you’ve met our regular, everyday green lentil.
Green lentils are more hearty when compared to red and yellow lentils. That’s why you can often find them in hearty dishes such as stews. Besides, green lentils are the main ingredient in the famous Arabic rice dish Mujadarra, which is basically rice with green lentils and caramelized onions.
You can also use green lentils to make salads. Poured with a generous amount of garlic, Middle Eastern green lentil salad is a true delight. That dish is proof that lentils don’t need much to be delicious!
Green lentils are readily available in most grocery stores. Again, there are different types of green lentils. The one you’ll need for Middle Eastern cooking is a type of round flat lentil with a khaki green color (green-brownish). In some countries, I’ve seen them labeled as brown lentils.
Green lentils cook fast (in 20-30 minutes) and retain their shape and crisp texture after minimal cooking. They do split and get mushy if you cook for too long.
5. Green Peas
Green peas are fresh legumes rich in vital nutrients and complex carbs but classified as vegetables for cooking purposes. Peas are some of the oldest cultivated plants and are native to the Mediterranean region and the Middle East. Today, they are hugely popular in many countries worldwide.
In Western countries, you’ll often find green peas together with carrots. While this makes a great duo, peas also pair well with many other vegetables, as well as as a standalone. Thanks to their subtle flavor, they make a great addition to rice dishes, soups, stews and even salads.
Similar to many other legumes, green peas can be purchased dried, fresh, canned or even frozen. Dried peas need to be soaked overnight only when unhulled (dried hulled peas don’t need soaking).
For many Middle Eastern recipes, you only need a handful of green peas. We hardly use them as a standalone vegetable (unlike lentils or chickpeas), but mostly as an addition to other vegetables or legumes. That said, cooking a small amount of green peas might not be worth the effort. I recommend that you have some frozen peas at home. While canned peas taste dull and the consistency is mushy, frozen peas have a great taste and texture. You can either buy frozen peas, or simply freeze peas that you soaked and cooked for later use.
Any Questions or Feedback?
Any questions on legumes in Middle Eastern cuisine? Let me know in the comments below. I’m more than happy to help you make delicious Middle Eastern food at home.