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Ancient Protein Alternatives to Meat

posted on: Jun 7, 2022

By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer

Why is the consumption of health foods on the rise in North America?  The answer lies much in the rising living standard and education which give impetus to the search for a healthier and more fulfilling way of lie.  Added to this, the gradual amalgamation in the Western Hemisphere of the many immigrant cultures has been a leading factor in the opening of a new and healthy culinary world.

With the immigrants from the Mediterranean basin came their vegetarian foods which had been eaten by their ancestors since the dawn of civilization.  The passing centuries had proven that these victuals, which in the majority of cases were eaten as a replacement for meat, were equal in their food value and much better for the body than any animal product.

At the top of these foods are the meat substitutes:  dried chickpeas, lentils, broad beans and burghul.  One of the richest sources of protein, these ancient plant products are much more beneficial as foods for man than any type of meat.  Today, their consumption as a daily food is gradually spreading throughout North America, especially in the larger cities.  Most Middle Eastern and Mediterranean food outlets in all the metropolises of this continent have for years offered them for sale.  However, it has only been in the last decade that a good number of health stores and supermarkets have begun to feature on their shelves these protein rich foods.

In the lands where chickpeas, lentils, broad beans, and burghul have been a part of the daily faire since the inception of plant cultivation, they are regarded as the staff of life.  Although the wealthy always ate meat, usually to assert their status, the toiling masses flourished on these vegetarian protein alternatives to animal products.  The meat related diseases of the affluent were never a concern to the peasants and city laborers.

When, at the turn of tis century, immigrants began to pour into North America from the Middle Eastern countries, they brought with them their time-tested cuisine.  Armenians, Egyptians, Greeks, Lebanese, Syrians, Turks, and other nationalities from that part of the world all had a hand in the spread throughout the Western Hemisphere of these protein rich foods.

Chickpeas are today the most widely know of these vegetarian delights.  Also marketed as garbanzo, ceci and hummus, they are to be found in every town and city in almost all of Canada and the U.S.A.  Although they were introduced into Central and South America by the Spanish Conquistadors, their cultivation for human consumption never spread to North America.  A half century ago, they were virtually unknown in the northern U.S.A. and Canada.  However, in the last few decades they have become a regular item on the shelves of supermarkets and health stores.

Chickpeas, which are the size of peas and pinkish to black in colour, are extremely nourishing and have been for centuries a serious source of protein. What makes them even more sought after as a food is that they are rich in carbohydrates, calcium, iron, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, and contain a fir amount of fat and vitamins A & B.  A basic food for the peoples of the poorer countries, the provide the maximum of nourishment for a minimum of cost.

Toasted, they become crunchier than peanuts and are excellent as in-between-meal snacks or an evening nibble.  Made into purees and salads or served cooked as a vegetable, they are sapid and very satisfying.  Their nut-like flavor makes them a delicious ingredient in endless types of dishes.  Nevertheless, their chief utilization is as a replacement for pastas, potatoes, rice, and as a substitute for meat in soups, stews and stuffings.  In availability, food value, flexibility, price, taste, and in cooking, they compare very favorably with any vegetable or meat.

Lentils, believed to be one of the first food plants cultivated by man is a nourishing legume, even more than chickpeas.  Like its sister plant, it was brought to Central and South America by the Spaniards.  Yet, its use for human consumption is becoming somewhat known in North America only in our times.

This ancient lens-shaped legume comes in a variety of colors ranging from brown, gray, green, yellow to other cross shades.  One of the most nutritious foods ever grown by man, they are one of the best sources of carbohydrates, calcium, iron, phosphorus, potassium, vitamin B, and especially protein.  More digestible than meat, they are often utilized as a meat substitute in many countries.  In food value, lentils contain as much protein as an equal amount of lean meat – a little less than soybeans but have a smaller number of calories.  They are highly recommended as a health food for low blood pressure, emaciation, anemia, and ulcers.

When cooked, lentils are exceedingly appetizing and satisfying.  They are great as appetizers and as an ingredient in salads and to soups and stews they impart a flavorful meaty taste.  After dining on a meal of lentils one can easily believe that a hungry person, like the Biblical Esau who sold his birthright for a dish of tis legume, would give almost anything for a lentil stew.

Broad beans, also known as fava, vicia, Windsor, English dwarf or horse beans were the only beans known to the inhabitants of the Old World before the discovery of America.  Nevertheless, after the many varieties of beans we know today were brought back to Europe from the New World, the cultivation of broad beans for some unknown reason died out in that continent.  However, they have continued to be very much favored in the Middle East and the Indian sub-continent.  Their high calcium, carbohydrate, phosphorus, potassium along with their iron, magnesium, protein, and vitamins A & C content make them one of the ideal foods for the peasants and workers in these parts of the world.

Broad beans are flat angular seeds which come in various sizes.  They vary from that of a pea to over one inch long and half an inch wide.  All are brownish in color when dry and are not much different in taste.

These historic legumes which some have called ‘the bean of history’ are excellent as purees and salads or made into patties such as the now popular mean substitute dish, falafel.  In addition, they are often utilized as an ingredient in soups and stews.  In many of the poorer countries like Egypt, they are almost the only protein food consumed by the masses.

Burghul, also known as bulgar, bulgor or bulgour, is believed to have been eaten in the Euphrates Valley as far back as 5000 BC. From that era until our times, it has continued on the daily menu of the Middle Eastern countries.

Made from wheat that is cooked and dried then crushed, it is a delicious and nourishing grain product.  In the lands where burghul is consumed every day, it is said that this cereal is the noblest form achieved by wheat.  An ideal food for homes where there is no refrigeration, it can be kept for years without deterioration.

The cooking of the wheat preserves most of the nutrients, even when the bran is removed after the grain is crushed.  The calcium, carbohydrates, iron, phosphorus, potassium, vitamin B, and protein content are almost all retained.

Unexcelled as a meat stretcher, it has more food energy than corn meal; more iron than rice; less fat than uncooked wheat; six times more calcium than corn meal and three times more than rice; and more vitamins than barley, corn meal and rice.

Simple to prepare, burghul is an inexpensive, natural, wholesome and very versatile food.  Often utilized as a replacement for rice, it is cooked in the same fashion as that grain, taking about 20 minutes to cook.  Employed in all types of dishes, it can be used in every course and every meal of the day.

Burghul can be purchased in three sizes:  coarse, medium, and fine.  The coarse is used in pottage dishes; the medium as an ingredient in salads and meat patties; and fine as a breakfast cereal or dessert.  The cooking of the wheat brings out a nutty-cereal flavor and makes this product an unexcelled early morning and after meal food.

The protein quality of chickpeas, lentils and broad beans can be further enhanced by combining them with grain.  Hence, they are often cooked with rice or burghul. Prepared in this fashion with a touch of herbs and spices, they are wholesome, appetizing and contain most of the nutrients which are needed by the human body.

Onions, garlic, salt, and black pepper are the four basic condiments employed to give taste and texture to almost all dishes made from these meat substitutes.  The onions and garlic are always fried, usually in olive oil or butter, then added to the remaining ingredients.  At times, the dishes are made much tastier by the addition of allspice, coriander, cumin, lemon juice, tomatoes and for a little zest, a pinch of cayenne.  When these ancient foods are prepared as appetizers and salads, the usual dressing is olive oil, lemon juice or vinegar, salt, and pepper.  Rarely are other herbs and spices utilized.

In the countries where these vegetarian foods are a daily fare, they are preferred by their regular consumers to meat.  Often when people, who during their youth are raised on these foods and emigrate to North America, they never become great meat eaters.  Rather, they always prefer the vegetarian legumes which were the staples of their early years.  At the beginning of this century when the immigrants came in swarms to the Western Hemisphere, the meatless protein foods of their homelands kept them healthy – away from doctors which they could ill afford.

Today, in most North American large urban centers, these protein meat replacements can be purchased in bulk at Middle Eastern markets or packaged in plastic bags at specialty or health stores and supermarkets.  They are found on shelves where rice, beans and other dried vegetables and grains are offered for sale.

Dried chickpeas, lentils and broad beans are also sold canned.  IN our modern age when most women are working and fast foods are the order of the day, the canned product is usually in demand.  Although not quire as tasty as the dried versions, they take much less time to prepare.  Most dishes made from the canned legumes take only a few minutes to become ready for the table and can be prepared by the most inexperienced of housewives.

On the other hand, when cooked from the dried state, these dried legumes are much more delectable and economical.  Dried chickpeas and broad beans should be soaked overnight after which they need about two hours to cook.  Lentils can also be soaked but without soaking they take less than an hour to be ready.  When well done and made toothsome with fried onions and garlic and a touch of herbs and spices, all three dried vegetables make excellent main courses.  Should they be cooked with rice or burghul, they are also very nourishing and can compete with any meat dish.

One of the greatest examples of these dishes is mujaddara made from lentils and burghul or rice.  It has been one of the basic foods of the Middle Eastern peasants and laborers since the dawn of history.  Historians have written that this is the Biblical dish for which Esau sold his birthright.  Even in the homes of the wealthy it is often eaten, but in private.  Because of its peasant connection, it is never offered to guests.  The rich feel that the few cents it costs to make this ancient dish is not appropriate for their status.

One of the most preferred dishes of the Middle Eastern immigrants to North America, it is still cooked and very much appreciated by their descendants.  Esty to prepare and very nourishing and mouth-watering, it is truly a vegetarian’s dream.

Mujaddara – Vegetarian Lentil Stew

Serves 4 to 6

1 cup brown or green lentils, rinsed

5 cups water

5 tablespoons olive oil

1 large onion, chopped

1/4 cup coarse burghul or rice, rinsed

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

2 tablespoons butter

In a saucepan, place the lentils and water and bring to a boil, then cover and cook over medium heat for 30 minutes.

In the meantime, in a frying pan, heat the oil, then sauté the onion over medium heat for about 15 minutes or until it turns golden brown.

Stir into the lentils the frying pan contents, burghul or rice, salt and pepper, then cook for another 25 minutes.

Stir in the butter and serve.

Note:  This dish may be served hot or cold.  However, if served cold the butter should be