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.
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 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 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!
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 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.
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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.
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!
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