If you walk the streets of Asia, the mung bean is the epitome of summer: suspended in syrup and ladled onto shaved ice, frozen into popsicles, boiled into sweet and pulpy soups, processed into translucent threads of vermicelli noodles, or pummeled into paste to stuff into pillows of mochi. But living in America, the mung bean, at its best, has a reputation of being stuck in the hippie realm of patchouli and birkenstocks, and at its worse, the mung bean is just dowdy: a healthful ingredient that we don’t know how to use well.
But I am here today to right this wrong. Let the naysayers call the mung bean bland, healthy and boring! There is so much versatility to these golden-green hued, minion-shaped legumes and it’s the reason why I’m excited about this recipe from Yotam Ottolenghi, a Jerusalem-born, British-based chef whose vegetarian cookbook, Plenty More, has me salivating for more vegetables in my life.
Bolstered by a trio of aromatic seeds, complemented by the sweetness of carrots, and simmered to al dente perfection, this is the kind of dish that celebrates the summer but also calls forth the first hints of the fall.
Fittingly, mung beans traditionally ripen in time for an autumn harvest, but its cooling properties make it the perfect summer food, which it has been for thousands of years. The name mung reveals its origin. Derived from the Hindi word, moong, which in turn stems from the Sanskrit mudga, the first known existence of the mung bean extends all the way back, over 4,500 years ago, to the Punjab and Haryana areas of India. In the Aryuvedic tradition, the mung bean is a cherished ingredient, recognized as tri-doshic, which makes it good for every body type. In China, the recognition of the mung bean is slightly more modern, showing up in the famous herbalist Li Shi Zhen’s pharmaceutical records in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).
In Mandarin, the mung bean is straightforwardly called lu dou or… green bean. Yup, what you see is what you get here. Li Shi Zhen praised this green bean for its dual richness as both a nutritious food and a medicine. And it’s true, mung beans are high in protein and dietary fiber and are full to the brim with potassium, magnesium, manganese, folate, copper, zinc and a medley of other B vitamins. But what makes it classically vital for the summer months is that the mung bean is a natural detoxifier that cleanses the stomach and heart meridians, as well as the liver, gallbladder and vascular system. In the months where the sweltering heat can linger on the edge of being pathogenic, the cold “yin” nature of mung beans offer a fantastic counter-punch.
According to traditional Chinese medicine, the sweet and cold nature of the mung bean dispels internal heat in the body, clears toxins, promotes the flow of urination (in other words, it’s a natural diuretic) and soothes heat-induced rashes. These anti-inflammatory properties make mung beans great for the skin (taken either internally or as an external wash) to soothe pimples, boils, skin rashes and mouth ulcers. Even the water from boiled mung beans or mung bean sprouts, drunk as a tea, is a great soother for hot, sore, scratchy throats. And studies have shown that mung beans are useful in defending chronic diseases, including high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes. On top of that, with a high fiber content, the mung bean also helps with digestion and in issues like constipation or IBS.
And if all of these wonderful reasons don’t get you to embrace the mung bean for all that it is, listen to this: the mung bean is a gas-free bean. With that knowledge, the pro-mung bean stance is the only horn I’ll toot (haha).
Traditionally for the summer, mung beans are cooked to make a light, refreshing soup that detoxifies by clearing internal heat. It’s a simple recipe that I will feature soon in a future Herby Kitchen post. This time, however, I was excited about this toothsome preparation. About 140 grams (or roughly a 3/4 cup) of mung beans are simmered for 20 minutes until the beans are cooked but still retain a hearty, slightly chewy bite. In this state, the beans beautifully absorb the delicious oil-infused medley of fennel, caraway and cumin seeds, along with a light dressing of white wine vinegar (I used rice wine vinegar because it’s what I had on hand), finely chopped garlic and chili flakes.
Who knew that carrots made the perfect match for mung beans? Sweet and bright, and cooked to the point of retaining the lightest crunch, these carrots make for a delectable complement both nutritionally and tastebud-wise. Li Shi Zhen’s pharmaceutical records note carrots as being an effective detoxifier for the intestines and the stomach and a natural energy booster for those experiencing poor appetites, weakness and indigestion. In the tastebud spectrum, I can’t get enough of the pairing of carrots and cumin – and with the addition of mung beans, the layering of interesting textures is out of this world.
Slice up the carrots into batons and simmer them in a shallow pool of water, with 2 tablespoons of oil and a half teaspoon each of salt and sugar. As the water evaporates, the carrots will intensify in sweetness, caramelizing and softening. It should take about 8 minutes for the carrots to reach a level where they are flexible, but still retain the lightest crunch.
This recipe requires a few things to happen at the same time. Boil the mung beans, then simmer the carrots. Just as the boiling mung beans are a few minutes from being ready to drain, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a small pan and sprinkle in the trio of caraway, fennel and cumin seeds. It will take about 3 minutes for the seeds to sizzle and pop, and when that happens, the seed-infused oil will be ready to toss with the drained mung beans. The smell! It is oh so good.
You’re almost done! Grate a little lemon zest for some citrusy-toned brightness.
As someone who is used to a mellower mung bean, this crunchier, chewier, nuttier version was a revelation. If the mung bean has gone in the way of the hippies, I’m all for another revolution.
Mung Bean and Carrot Salad
Adapted from Yotam Ottolenghi’s recipe in The Guardian
Makes 4 servings
140g (roughly 3/4 cup) dried mung beans, rinsed and drained
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon caraway seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
2 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon dried chili flakes
1 teaspoon salt
3 large carrots, peeled and chopped into sticks
1/2 teaspoon sugar
Freshly grated lemon zest from one lemon
A handful of feta cheese, crumbled or broken into chunks
- Fill a medium saucepan halfway with water and bring to a boil.
- Add the rinsed mung beans and simmer for 20-25 minutes.
- As the beans are cooking, shake the carrots out into a saucepan large enough that they form a single layer at the bottom. Pour roughly 150ml of water over the carrots, just enough to nearly submerge them. Add 2 tablespoons of oil as well as half a teaspoon each of salt and sugar. Bring to a boil and keep on high heat for about 8 minutes, or until the water is nearly evaporated. The carrots should be cooked, but still a retain a crunch. Drain the liquid, if needed.
- Back to the mung beans. After 20-25 minutes, the beans should be cooked but still firm to the bite. Drain the beans, saving the water for a tea, if you wish.** Fully shake the beans in a colander to release the excess water, then transfer them to a large bowl.
- Three minutes before the beans are done, pour two tablespoons of olive oil is a small skillet or frying pan and add the seeds, cooking them on medium heat for 2-3 minutes, until they begin to pop. Pour the hot oil and seeds straight into the large bowl with the beans and stir thoroughly.
- Add the white wine vinegar, cloves, chili flakes and half a teaspoon of salt to the beans.
- Add the carrots to the beans, stirring gently.
- Before serving, sprinkle on the lemon zest and crumbled feta. Serve with a gentle drizzle of olive oil.
** My mother would like to note that boiled mung bean water is a prized commodity for cooling the body, replenishing fluids and ridding sore throats. Save the water for a simple tea, which you can sweeten with a drizzle of honey, if you’d like.