close up of medu vada

Science of Urad Beans (+ Medu Vada recipe)

When looking into scientific literature you will find that some ingredients have been researched very intensely, whereas others have barely received any attention at all! Western staple ingredients such as wheat and potatoes have millions of hits when searching for them on Google Scholar. Whereas on the other hand, the humble Urad bean, a little black bean, gives only several thousand hits (most of which don’t even cover urad dal!).

There’s little to no information on how urad beans behave, its different varieties, and how to optimize the cooking of foods made with urad dal, as opposed to thousands and thousands of articles on just wheat bread baking! Nevertheless, it’s a very interesting ingredient that can probably be used in many more ways than we might realize (we recently even used them to make muffins!).

What is the urad bean?

Urad beans are one of many legumes and even though it might be small like a lentil, it is officially a bean called Vigna mungo. You might also know it as black matpe bean or black gram. Different regions have different names, both for the little bean itself, as well as for the different formats you can get it in.

The beans contain barely any fat but do contain a significant amount of protein (about 25-30%) and starches (around 40%) and a smaller amount of fibers (<5%).

Urad beans, like many other legumes, are generally sold in dried form. This is ideal for storage since they can easily be kept for months, if not years, as long as they stay dry. It’s what makes legumes an important food for people year-round.

Naming and types of urad

You can buy urad beans in different forms: whole, split, with or without the black skin. They all work a little differently in your dish. Unfortunately, names for these three different forms are regularly mixed up. To make matters a little more complicated, different regions, use different names. If deciding on which form of urad to use, look for how it’s described.

Urad whole

The whole urad bean is often appropriately called “urad whole”. Since it’s the whole bean, this form takes the longest to cook and prepare. It simply takes more time for the heat and moisture to penetrate into the whole beans.

Urad split

Urad beans consist of two halves that are connected in the middle. Manufacturers may decide to split these beans in half, giving you urad split. Their smaller size reduces their cooking time. Naming conventions differ a lot for this one. It can be called split urad, urad dal (which may make it hard to distinguish from the yellow variety below), black urad dal, black split urad dal.

Urad dal

Urad beans have a bright black skin and a pale yellow/off-white center. The last common form of urad is the ‘dal’ variety which does not contain the black skin anymore. Instead, it’s a completely yellow/off-white version of the dal. Naming conventions also differ a lot for this type. We’ve been them being called urad dal, white urad, or one of many other variations!

soaking urad dal
Soaking split urad beans

Preparing urad

Urad has a great flavor of itself which makes it ideal for the base of a wide variety of dishes. Making a good dal, such as a dal makhani, is a great application. The beans, especially those with the skins removed, completely disintegrate once you cook them for long enough. This creates a lush, rich, creamy texture, similar to how certain types of lentils disintegrate as well.

Thickening power of urad

Urad dal disintegrates into this creamy texture due to its high starch content and the fact that most ingredients in the bean dissolve in water. If the dal would have contained a lot of fibrous, sturdy cellulose structures, like a piece of celery, it would not be able to break down. However, the lack of those, allows it to completely fall apart.

How urad thickens a liquid when cooked, is very similar to how flours or potatoes thicken liquids. All of these contain a large amount of starches which cook and bind water in the process.

frying medu vada
Frying an urad dal dough to make medu vada

How to use urad

As with most dried legumes, using and preparing urad will need some form of heat and water. Most legumes contain so-called anti-nutrients which break down upon heating. Therefore, it’s important not to eat these beans raw.

Besides heat, almost all preparations of urad use water to soften the beans back up. A dish might call for soaking the urad in water to soften it, or you might need to simply cook them in water directly. The water slowly re-enters the little beans and makes it easier for molecules to move around again, softening the texture.

A popular use of urad is to use them for batter and doughs (as the recipe below for medu vada does). Once the beans have been soaked you can blend them or mash them, breaking them down into a semi-smooth batter. Dosa is one of the most well-known applications of using urad dal this way.

stack of medu vada

Medu Vada

Yield: 3-4 portions
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: 30 minutes
Additional Time: 8 hours
Total Time: 8 hours 40 minutes

These deep-fried dough balls made of urad dal (if you want you could call them a style of savory donuts) are full of flavor, thanks to the urad dal. While easy to make, they do require some planning and patience, you can't skip the several hours of soaking of the urad dal! This recipe is strongly inspired by that from Chai, Chaat, Chutney.

Traditionally these are fried in the shape of a donut, with a hole in the middle. However, I prefer the easier way, frying them in little balls and these taste perfectly fine!

Ingredients

  • 150g of urad dal (split urad) (you will need the split version: it's half a bean with the black skin and inner white clearly visible, the whole bean will take much longer to soak and you do want the skin for extra color and flavor)
  • 350g of water
  • 1 small green chili
  • 1 tbsp of chopped ginger
  • 15-20 dried curry leaves
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • oil for frying (e.g. peanut oil)
  • chutneys for serving (choose your favorite!)

Instructions

  1. Soak the urad dal in the water, either soak them overnight or during the whole day. Do not use more water than is given in the recipe. (prep early in the morning, use in the evening).soaking urad dal
  2. At the end of the soaking time, you should notice that the little beans have noticeably increased in size. There will still be some water left, that's ok.
  3. Add the urad dal + water + green chili + curry leaves + ginger + salt in the food processor. Process until it's become a fine paste. It will still be a little grainy, not completely, smooth and that's ok. Take care to wipe the sides clean.
  4. Process for another minute or two. This will aerate the batter and create a lighter and fluffier urad dal!
  5. Leave the batter while you're pre-heating the oil for frying the vada. During this time the batter will thicken slightly, the urad dal will absorb some more moisture. This will help it keep its shape.
  6. Pre-heat your oil in a suitable pan (e.g. kadai or cast iron pan) until it's 180C (350F). Gently add spoonfuls of batter into the oil. They'll puff up slightly. Keep the temperature constant and fry until they are a nice golden brown on all sides. You'll probably have to flip them over a few times.frying medu vada
  7. Place on a paper towel or paper plate to absorb excess oil, then transfer onto a clean plate.
  8. Enjoy them while they're still warm. We enjoy the with mango or tamarind chutney, some yogurt and/or coriander and mint chutney!

Urad beans are one of my favorite legumes, mostly because of their flavor. It’s a shame that from a scientific standpoint so little is known about them. Hopefully, the will change in the future!

References

Kakati, P., *Deka S. C., Kotoki, D. and Saikia, S., Effect of traditional methods of processing on the nutrient contents and some antinutritional factors in newly developed cultivars of green gram [Vigna radiata (L.) Wilezek] and black gram [Vigna mungo (L.) Hepper] of Assam, India, International Food Research Journal 17: 377-384 (2010), link

Wikipedia, Vigna mundo, link

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