Lentils for life
Pulses might be known as the 'poor man's food' but they're hard to beat on the nutritional front.
By Connie Phillipson
As little as 30 years ago a nutritionist would have smiled condescendingly at this edict. Now, though, we know better. Legumes have a low glycemic index, meaning that they release their content of starch very slowly; in turn, the conversion of starch to sugar in the blood is gradual. This process reduces the sudden ups-and-downs that nutritionists will tell you is a principal cause of insulin resistance, some degenerative diseases, obesity (not due to overeating), and all the ills of Christendom.
Analysis shows that while legumes and cereals are very similar foods in terms of their principal ingredients, there is a significant difference in terms of their balance. Legumes contain more proteins than cereals, while cereals have more carbohydrates than legumes. But why should we - as the Ancient Greeks advised - eat them together? The answer lies in the old principle that the whole may be worth more than the sum of its parts. Now we know that neither legumes nor cereals contain complete proteins. If you eat the one without the other, your body cannot make up all the proteins it needs. But taken together, they provide all the amino acids necessary to create the vast array of proteins our body manufactures; neurotransmitters, enzymes, hormones, the agents of our immune system, and so on. Proteins are in fact the building blocks of life, the ultimate organic materials of the universe.
One legume widely used in both ancient and modern Greece is the lentil (Lens esculenta, faki in Greek). It's one of the earliest legumes found in archaeological excavations, dating back to the Paleolithic Age (more than 12,000 years ago) and present in nearly all Early Neolithic sites (ca 9,000 years ago). It was geographically dispersed too.
In 1885, Alphonse de Candolle referred to finding remains of lentils in prehistoric Swiss lake dwellings. Importantly, it's the legume with the lowest glycemic index, 29, on a scale where glucose and white bread are 100. Being a poor man's food, it was (and still is) eaten extensively, from India where it is known as dahl, to the Near East, Egypt and the rest of North Africa.
Egypt became a major exporter, on at least one occasion finding an ingenious additional use for the legume. The Egyptian obelisk in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican was transported by ship in the reign of the Roman emperor Caligula from its place of origin, packed in some 120,000 measures or, approximately, 240,000 galls of lentils. In this way, Caligula satisfied his fancy, while the people of Rome found themselves in receipt of a huge supply of something substantial and healthy to eat.
The lentil is represented by a small number of different plants; the cultivated species already mentioned, as well as four wild ones. Cultivation increased the size of the seeds, and most of this is believed to have taken place in the Near East. There seem to be good reasons for this belief. It is in this region where these larger lentils make a very early appearance, around the end of the sixth millennium BC - or about 1500 years after wheat and barley were first cultivated. But it is also in the Near East where L orientalis grows wild. It therefore seems logical to suppose that its domestication must have taken place in this region, most probably somewhere between Turkey and Uzbekistan.
Lentil soup improves immensely when some first-class wine vinegar is added just before you start eating. And don't forget the combination of legumes and cereals recommended by those Ancient Greek nutritionists; accompany it with whole-grain bread and some choice olives.