Opinion | The many shades of a superbean

Asian-style flat beans stir-fry; and Bhojpuri ‘sem matar ki bhujia’. Photo: Nandita Iyer
Asian-style flat beans stir-fry; and Bhojpuri ‘sem matar ki bhujia’. Photo: Nandita Iyer

The big family of hyacinth beans has as many variations as preparations across the country

Grown for its green pod that is used as a vegetable, or for the pulse that develops inside the pod, a variety of hyacinth beans grow in India. Dolichos lablab and Lablab purpurea are botanical names for these beans. Flat beans, hyacinth beans or sword beans, this category comes with many names, often confusing. These are also erroneously called broad beans, which is a different family altogether. The French beans or haricot verts came into India much later as an import from the new world.

The family of hyacinth beans has a quite a few varieties that you may have spotted in the markets or tasted in different dishes. Some are available year round while others are highly seasonal. The flatter desi papdi is popular in Gujarat. The valor variety is somewhat puffed up, and not as flat as the other varieties. Surti papdi, half-moon shaped, smaller in size, just over an inch long, is the key ingredient in the winter speciality undhiyu.

The green seeds in the pods can also be used in curries and as fillings in kachoris and pooris. Called avarekalu in Karnataka, they turn into a seasonal obsession every year, making an appearance in almost every dish, from breakfast to desserts.

Our green grocer sometimes stocks up a bigger variety of the flat beans, sold as “belt avarekkai". The best use for this variety is the Bengali fritter, sheem pur. Maumita Paul, my neighbour and blogger of heirloom Bengali recipes, made this for lunch once. Standing beside her in the kitchen, watching her delicately fill the pried open beans with a mustard-poppy paste, dip them in batter and deep fry each one to crispy golden perfection was a lesson in Bengali home cooking I won’t forget in a long time.

Another sheem recipe to travel from Maumita’s kitchen to mine is sheem paturi. Tender flat beans mixed with mustard paste, coconut, chillies and mustard oil, wrapped in a banana leaf parcel and cooked on a hot pan, this is the perfect substitute to ilish paturi, if you are a vegetarian, that is. I have also experimented with adding mashed paneer or sweet potato along with the sheem inside these parcels. Anything that adds some body but doesn’t take away from the delicate flavour of these beans works really well.

Bihari and Bhojpuri cuisines have much love for sem, featuring it in dry curries called bhujia—either by itself or in a combination with potatoes, peas, tomatoes or brinjal. What came as a most surprising use of this vegetable was a sem achaar popular in Bhojpuri cuisine, as I learnt from Pallavi Nigam Sahay’s cookbook—The Bhojpuri Kitchen. Cut, blanched and dried beans, combined with crushed pickling spices like yellow mustard, fenugreek seeds, fennel seeds, turmeric and red chilli powder, along with mustard oil goes into the making of this pickle, which has an approximate shelf life of one month. The pickle is best tried with tender seasonal sem. The recipe for bhujia is adapted from her cookbook. The mild flavour of these beans also goes well with ginger, garlic and chilli in an Asian-style stir-fry, which is my take on this vegetable.

Bhojpuri sem matar ki bhujia

Serves 2

Ingredients

250g flat beans

2 tsp mustard oil

1/2 tsp panchphoron (Bengali five-spice mix)

4 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1 tsp grated ginger

50g frozen peas

2 tsp coriander powder

1/2 tsp turmeric powder

1/2 tsp chilli powder

3/4 tsp salt

Method

Prep the beans by cutting off the top and tail, and removing the strings. Open up each bean and break into 1-inch-sized pieces. If the beans have seeds in them, include them in the bhujia.

In a pan, heat the mustard oil until it turns a shade lighter. Add panchphoron and fry on high heat till it crackles (instead of panchphoron, you can use a pinch each of mustard, cumin, fennel, fenugreek and nigella seeds).

Reduce the heat, and fry the garlic and ginger for 30 seconds. To this, add the prepared beans along with peas. Stir well to combine with the spices.

Mix coriander powder, turmeric, chilli powder and salt with 2-3 tbsp of water. Add this mixture to the pan and stir to combine with the vegetables.

Sprinkle some water in the pan, cover and cook on low heat until the beans are tender. This will take around 6-7 minutes. Serve hot with dal and rice.

Asian-style flat beans stir-fry

Serves 2

Ingredients

200g flat beans

2 dried red chillies

2 tsp vegetable oil

4-5 cloves garlic, thinly sliced

1 tsp julienned ginger

2 tsp white sesame seeds, divided

2 tsp dark soya sauce

1 tsp brown sugar

1 tsp white vinegar

Method

Prep the beans by cutting off the top and tail, and removing the strings from both edges. Pile up four-five beans together and cut into very thin long, diagonal strips.

In a microwave-safe bowl, put beans in N cup water. Cover and microwave for 3-4 minutes. The beans should be nearly cooked, while retaining a slight bite to them. Drain and keep aside.

In a medium-hot pan, toast the dried red chillies until bright red. Remove and crush into flakes once cooled.

Heat oil in the pan. Fry garlic, ginger and half the sesame seeds on a high flame for 30 seconds. Add the cooked beans and chilli flakes and toss well to combine. In a small bowl, mix soy sauce, sugar and vinegar until combined. Mix this along with the beans, tossing well.

Transfer the prepared beans to a dish and garnish with remaining sesame seeds.

Double Tested is a fortnightly column on vegetarian cooking, highlighting a single ingredient prepared two ways. Nandita Iyer is the author of The Everyday Healthy Vegetarian.

She tweets at @saffrontrail

Close