In culinary terms, legumes are edible seeds that grow in pods on plants, bushes or vines. Botanically, the term can apply to the entire plant. There are over 13,000 varieties of legumes.
Depending on the type of legume, they can be eaten fresh, sprouted, dried, dried and ground, or liquified and transformed into other products such as bean curd or bean milk.
The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health makes this distinction between botanical legumes (the entire plant) and the actual edible seed part of it (the pulse, the dried seed):
“Although used interchangeably, the terms “legumes,” “pulses,” and “beans” have distinct meanings. A legume refers to any plant from the Fabaceae family that would include its leaves, stems, and pods. A pulse is the edible seed from a legume plant. Pulses include beans, lentils, and peas. For example, a pea pod is a legume, but the pea inside the pod is the pulse. The entire legume plant is often used in agricultural applications (as cover crops or in livestock feed or fertilizers), while the seeds or pulses are what typically end up on our dinner plates. Beans in their various forms (kidney, black, pinto, navy, chickpeas, etc.) are just one type of pulse.” The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Legumes and pulses. Accessed April 2021 at https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/legumes-pulses/
Typically, the seed of a legume can easily be split in half. “Legumes are the edible seeds from pods you can split in half.” Plant-based diet: Nuts, seeds, and legumes can help get you there. Harvard Men’s Health Watch. November 2014. Accessed April 2021 at https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/plant-based-diet-nuts-seeds-and-legumes-can-help-get-you-there
Legumes and grains complement each other in two ways:
- On the table. The protein in each is incomplete but together they form a complete protein;
- In the field. Legumes enrich the ground with nutrients that the grains use. This is why even the Romans would rotate these crops, and why natives in Central America grew beans and corn right together, training the bean vines right onto the corn stalks.
Legumes are on average more nutritious than grains, with almost twice the protein, and more iron and B vitamins.
The flatulence problem has been known for ever. Saint Augustine and Saint Jerome wrote about it (Saint Jerome forbade his nuns to eat beans on account of it).
Legumes were quite important in Rome, and not looked down on, as they are today. Four prominent Roman families derived their names from Legumes:
Cicero — Chickpea (an ancestor had a growth on his face that resembled a chickpea)
Lentulus — Lentil
Fabius — Faba bean
Piso — pea
Growing legumes was very important for farmers in the days before commercial fertilizers, because legumes would put nitrogen into the soil.
Legume word comes from the Latin verb legere, meaning “to gather”.
The bean family of legumes is called phaseolus; the lentil family is called lens; the peanut family is called arachis.
|↑1||The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Legumes and pulses. Accessed April 2021 at https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/legumes-pulses/|
|↑2||Plant-based diet: Nuts, seeds, and legumes can help get you there. Harvard Men’s Health Watch. November 2014. Accessed April 2021 at https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/plant-based-diet-nuts-seeds-and-legumes-can-help-get-you-there|