Today I want to take a quick look, more of an overview really, at the history of beans on the Indian subcontinent. There, legumes are known as dal, a word that comes from the Sankrit root meaning “to split”. Dal is also used as the term for all kinds of dishes made from legumes. Unsurprisingly, given the source of the word, legumes referred to as dal are split. Legumes that aren’t split are called gram.
The history of dal is closed tied with the history of India itself, with archaeological evidence of legumes being consumed in the area dating all the way back to the people of the Indus River Valley. Dal were served at weddings, to picky Indian emperors, included in oral fables, and were used to give mythical heroes strength during exile.
There is so much I don’t know about dal and so much I want to learn, but let’s start with what I do know. I know that, unlike most other civilizations I’ve looked at, dal were not seen as a pauper’s food. I don’t know exactly why that is so in India, but I do know that at least part of it has to do with the long history of religious vegetarianism in Indian culture. Today it’s estimated that about 40% of people in India are vegetarian or vegan. Vegetarianism, specifically non-violence towards animals, was established as early as the 6th century BCE on the Indian subcontinent. The practice of non-violence was a part of multiple different religious teachings in the area.
What I think I’m getting at is that a large part of the population of the Indian subcontinent didn’t consume meat, and dal was a natural replacement for much of the nutrition that was easier to come by in more carnivorous societies.
I certainly have a lot more digging and learning to do on this topic, but I wanted to get started and hopefully help you think about how culture, religion, and society help shape the way we eat.