When I tell people that I am a vegetarian, the invariable question comes up – “how do you get enough protein in your diet?”. My standard reply is: “I do not concern myself about how much protein I’m getting, any more than you worry about the perfect number of breaths you take in a day.”
Humor aside, the Western diet has led people to believe that protein is such an essential nutrient that one must actively pursue foods that contain high amounts of it, even when those foods (I am referring specifically to factory raised/processed meat and dairy here), severely compromise our own health and the health of the planet in so many ways.
It has also been grilled into us that only animal-based foods contain sufficient protein and, that we need to eat those foods to avoid becoming protein deficient.
This is far from reality. The reality is that protein deficiency is almost exclusively seen in people suffering from a calorie deficiency. In these cases, there is bound to be an overall nutrient deficiency, not just protein deficiency. When this happens, the concern should be getting more calories and all nutrients, and not just more protein.
Just how much protein does a person need? The answer probably is – the amount that a diet of whole, plant-based foods provides. Most whole, plant-based foods have protein. People have thrived on plant-based diets for millennia, without ever going out of their way to find specific sources of protein. Indeed, we’ve evolved over millions of years without ever aiming for a “source” of this or any other nutrient.
The Plant Kingdom offers a plethora of protein-rich bounties. One among the list of the top 10 plant foods that have the highest amount of protein is garbanzos, also known as chickpeas. Part of the legume/lentil family, they contain both essential and non-essential amino acids, including globulin (which makes up almost half of the lentils’ amino acid profile). Besides offering protein, chickpeas promote health via their starch content, insoluble dietary fiber, prebiotics, and potassium. To top it off, lentils are very inexpensive and super filling.
Today’s recipe is Usli or Sundal – a classic South Indian snack-cum-breakfast that is served during the festive season of Dussera and Diwali, that come around at this time of the year. Most recipes don’t call for any vegetables (in fact, my mom would wrinkle her nose at the idea of adding veggies to this traditional dish), and freshly grated coconut is added at the very end. My recipe uses grated carrots AND the coconut is lightly fried and these two simple changes take this dish up by several notches.
I make this usli when I have company for several reasons –
- it is easy to make,
- it is gluten free, nut free, grain free and vegan hence, I don’t have to fret about it not suiting certain food preferences,
- it is a crowd-pleaser, in terms of its looks and flavor,
- and you’ve guessed this coming…. it’s healthy!
There are two garbanzo bean varieties: the large, round, cream-colored “kabuli-type” usually found in canned chickpeas and salad bars, and the smaller, darker and less uniform “desi-type.” Both get high marks for versatility, but nutritionally, the darker the better.
I love to use dried chickpeas, especially if I have the opportunity to plan ahead for usli. The downside of using dry beans is that they need to be soaked overnight for a period of 8-10 hours before cooking them. Buying chickpeas in bulk rather than in tins is a more healthy and economical way of cooking. However, if you are in a bind, you can pick up BPA-free cans of garbanzos, wash and drain them well (some of them have a slimy residue), and they will pretty well serve the purpose.
Low in saturated fat and very low in cholesterol and sodium, garbanzo beans contain high amounts of folate (71% DV) and manganese (84%), which may make the amounts of the other nutrients look a little ineffective. But they’re not! You get 29% each of the protein and copper you need, 28% phosphorus, 26% iron, and 20% magnesium. The fiber, thiamin, zinc and vitamin B6 are in healthy supply as well. It’s a perfect combination and one way to work toward optimum health. Whether canned or cooked from scratch, you get similar nutrients.
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