Meat-Free Protein: from Chickpeas to Lentils to Beans and More

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Beet and Navy Bean Hummus combines the smooth flavour of olive oil with colourful beets and tangy garlic

Why is the consumption of health foods on the rise in North America? The answer lies in rising living standards and education which give impetus to the search for a healthier and more fulfilling way of life. Also, the gradual amalgamation in the western hemisphere of many immigrant cultures has been a leading factor in the gateway to a new and healthier culinary world.

Immigrants from the Mediterranean basin brought with them the vegetarian foods used by their ancestors since the dawn of civilization. The passing centuries had proven that these victuals, often consumed as a replacement for meat, were infinitely more nutritious for the body than any animal product.

At the pinnacle of these rich sources of protein are chickpeas, lentils, broad beans and bulgar. 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 North American cities have offered them for years. However, it has only been in the last few decades that many health food stores and supermarkets have begun to feature these protein-rich foods.

In the lands where chickpeas, lentils, broad beans and bulgar have been a part of the daily fare 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 vegetarian protein alternatives. The meat-related diseases of the affluent were thus never a concern to the peasants and city labourers.

When, at the turn of the last 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 through the Western hemisphere of these protein-rich foods.


Chickpeas are today the most widely known of these vegetarian delights. Also marketed as garbanzo, ceci, and hummus, chickpeas were introduced into Central and South America by the Spanish Conquistadors, but their cultivation for human consumption never spread to North America. A half-century ago, they were virtually unknown foods in the Northern Hemisphere. Today, they are regular items on supermarket and health food store shelves.

Chickpeas, which are the size of peas and pinkish to black in colour, are extremely nourishing and a hearty source of protein. What makes them even more sought after as a food is their richness of carbohydrates, calcium, iron, phosphorus, potassium and sodium. They also contain a fair amount of fat and vitamins A and B. A basic food for the people of poor countries, chickpeas provide maximum nourishment from minimal cost.

Toasted, they become crunchier than peanuts and are excellent as in-between-meal snacks or an evening nibble. Made into purées and salads, or served cooked as a vegetable, they are savoury and satisfying. Their nut-like flavour 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.


Even more than chickpeas, lentils, believed to be one of the first food plants cultivated by man, are an exceptionally nourishing legume. Lentils were also brought to Central and South America by the Spaniards.

This ancient lens-shaped legume comes in a variety of colours ranging from brown, gray, green, yellow to other cross shades. One of the most nutritious foods grown by humans, lentils are an excellent source of carbohydrates, calcium, iron, phosphorous, potassium, vitamin B, and especially protein. Lentils are utilized as a meat substitute in many countries, as they are more easily digested.

In food value, lentils contain as much protein as an equal amount of lean meat — a little less than soy beans, but with fewer calories. They are highly recommended as a health food for low blood pressure, emaciation, anemia, and ulcers.

When cooked, lentils are appetizing and satisfying. They are great as appetizers, as an ingredient in salads, and they impart a favourable meaty taste to soups and stews. After dining on a meal of lentils you can easily believe that a hungry person — like the Biblical Esau who sold his birthright for a dish of this 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 the Americas. 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 reason died out on that continent.

However, they continue to be favoured in the Middle East and the Indian sub-continent. Their high calcium, carbohydrate, phosphorus, potassium, along with their iron, magnesium, protein and vitamins A and C content make them one of the ideal foods for peasants and workers in these parts of the world.

Broad beans are flat, angular seeds which come in various sizes, varying from that of a pea to over one-inch long and half-an-inch wide. Bright green when fresh, all broad beans turn brownish in colour when dried, and are not much different in taste from each other.

This historic legume, which some call “the bean of history,” is excellent puréed, in salads, or mouth-watering when made into patties such as falafel. Broad beans are also used in soups and stews.


Bulgar, also known as burghal, bulgar, bulgor, or bulgour, is believed to have been eaten in the Euphrates Valley as far back as 5,000 BC. It is still a part of the daily menu of Middle Eastern peoples.

Made from wheat, which is cooked, dried, then crushed, bulgar is a delicious and nourishing grain product. In the lands where bulgar is consumed daily, 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 stored 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, phosphorous, potassium, vitamin B, and protein content are almost all retained. Unmatched 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, bulgar is an inexpensive, natural, wholesome and versatile food. Often used as a replacement for rice, it is cooked in the same fashion as grain. It can be used in every course and every meal of the day, and employed in all types of dishes. Bulgar can be purchased in three sizes: coarse, medium, and fine. The coarse is utilized in pottage dishes; the medium as an ingredient in salads and “meat” patties; fine as a breakfast cereal or dessert. Cooking wheat brings out a nutty-cereal flavour and makes this produce 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 grains such as rice or bulgar. Prepared in this fashion, with a touch of herbs and spices, they are wholesome, appetizing and contain most of the nutrients needed by the body. Onions, garlic, salt and pepper are the four basic condiments employed to give greater taste and texture to almost all dishes made from these meat substitutes. The onions and garlic are always fried in olive oil or butter, then added to the remaining ingredients. Other spices used include 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.


When prepared from their dried states, these legumes are 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 even without soaking they take less than an hour to be ready. Mixed with onions, garlic, and a touch of herbs and spices, all three dried vegetables make excellent main courses.

Dried chickpeas, lentils and broad beans are also sold canned.  Although not quite as tasty as the dried versions, they take less time to prepare. Most dishes made from the canned legumes take only a few minutes to be table ready, and can be prepared by the most inexperienced of cooks.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

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One of the greatest examples of these dishes is mujaddara, made from lentils and bulgur or rice. It has been one of the basic foods of Middle Eastern peasants and labourers since the dawn of history. Even in the homes of the wealthy it is often eaten, but behind closed doors. Because of its peasant connection it is never offered to guests. The affluent feel that the few cents it costs to make this ancient dish is not appropriate for their status. Simple to prepare, nourishing, and mouth-watering, it is truly a vegetarian’s dream. (Serves 4-6)


  • 1 cup lentils, rinsed
  • 5 cups water
  • 5 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 1/4 cup coarse bulgur or rice, rinsed
  • 1 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp pepper
  • 3 Tbsp butter

View the full printable recipe

This recipe is courtesy of Foodland Ontario.

Adding the peppers to this traditional Middle East dip gives it a wonderful flavour and colour, but if you don’t like it spicy, omit the hot pepper. Serve with pita triangles or fresh vegetables. (Makes about 2 1/2 cups)


  • 1 roasted Ontario Sweet Red Pepper, peeled, seeded, chopped
  • 1 roasted Ontario Hot Banana Pepper, peeled, seeded, chopped
  • 1 can (19 oz/540 ml) chick peas, drained and rinsed
  • 1/4 cup tahini (sesame seed paste) or peanut butter
  • 1/4 cup lemon juice
  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 2 Tbsp water
  • 1 clove Ontario Garlic, minced
  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • 1/4 tsp salt

Habeeb Salloum’s articles have been published in the Toronto Star, Backwoods Home Magazine, Forever Young Information Magazine, and Vegetarian Journal, among others. His most recent book Asian Cooking Made Simple – A Culinary Journey Along the Silk Road and Beyond is available at amazon at:

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