The fruit vs vegetable argument continues to divide us as a society. If you mention that a tomato is a fruit in mixed company, you’re liable to have a fistfight. The same can be said for the elusive, mysterious lentil. Is it a seed or a bean? And what exactly qualifies as a bean? And how do legumes fit into all this?
What are lentils? Are lentils beans?
Our greatest scholars and philosophers have made the grandiose claim that the lentil is a legume. This blanket term also applies to plants that produce any beans, peas, soybeans, chickpeas, peanuts, clover, and alfalfa, among other things. Lentils and other beans can be found in a pod on a legume plant. However, the little things in a pod are also called seeds. That means beans are seeds. And all beans are legumes. BUT, not all legumes are beans—see alfalfa and clover as exceptions. So, a lentil is a legume AND a bean AND a seed.
If you haven’t jumped off your roof yet, here’s the final push. Lentils also fall into a commercial category called a pulse. Pulses are the dried version of the bean/seed that comes out of a pod on a legume plant; those bags of dried kidney beans or pinto beans or lentils that you see in the grocery store all qualify as pulses. However, a green bean or a pea is not a pulse—it’s considered a vegetable crop. That’s also a legume.
Oh, and because the pods that some legume plants produce have seeds in them, guess what? They are also a fruit.
Okay, but really, what is a lentil?
For the purposes of avoiding a semantic aneurysm, we’ll call the lentil a bean. It’s a small, circular bean that primarily comes in green, brown, and red varieties that has its origins in the Fertile Crescent area of the Middle East and North Africa. Evidence of lentils can be traced as far back as 11,000 BCE. Since then, the lentil has spread around the globe, appearing in India, most of Europe and Africa, and the Americas.
Traditionally, the lentil bean is separated from its pod, dried, and sold as a pulse. To cook lentils, you typically soak them, then simmer them—much like other beans. There are also many commercial products that have lentils in them like canned soups and pastas that use lentils in place of flour.
Are lentils gluten free?
Lentils are gluten free, which is why many gluten free pasta (including the best gluten free pasta, according to Sporked) use ground lentils in place of flour.
What do lentils taste like?
If you ate a spoonful of cooked lentils, it would have a slightly nutty taste that is generally sweeter than other beans. But each type of lentil—brown/black, green, and red/yellow—tastes slightly different. Black lentils are deeply earthy, green lentils are slightly peppery, and red lentils are sweet.
Lentils are a staple in so many different countries’ cuisines and dishes, all bearing different names. It is far more important to understand and appreciate the lentil’s worldwide cultural significance than to get tied up in the bean/seed/legume debate. Hopefully, this refocusing will ease the brain pain of trying to define it.
Thoughts? Questions? Complete disagreement? Leave a comment!