Guide to Indian Pulses

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Pulses got you confused?  This ultimate guide to Indian pulses will teach you to identify and differentiate between beans, lentils, and peas.

A spoonful of chickpeas and a title which reads Pulse 101 - a guide to beans, lentils and peas
A guide to Indian pulses

From hummus to the quintessential English breakfast dish of baked beans, pulses can be found across the world. For Indians, especially vegetarians, it is hard to imagine a meal without at least one dish made from pulses. Pulses are an integral part of Indian cuisine in curries, dumplings, snacks, and even sweets.

That is why knowing your pulses is an essential step in learning to cook Indian food.

What are pulses?

Before we discuss pulses, we need to understand what legumes are. Plants that grow in pods are called leguminous plants and their fruit or seeds are called legumes.

The dried edible seeds within these pods are referred to as pulses.

The most common types of pulses are dry beans, dry peas, chickpeas, and lentils.

An infographic on Indian legumes
Legumes and Pulses

Note: Soybeans, peanuts, fresh peas, and fresh beans are also considered legumes, but they are not pulses.

What are dals? Are they the same as lentils?

Lentils and dals are often used interchangeably but dals are actually split versions of all pulses, not just lentils. Examples of dal would be chana dal (split chickpeas), mung dal (split green gram), and urad dal (split black gram)

You also probably know that a curry made with these pulses is also called dal.

Difference between beans, dry peas, lentils, and dals

Here are the main differences –

  • Beans are large and oval or kidney-shaped. Ideally, beans need to be soaked before cooking, while lentils don’t. 
  • Lentils are flatter and lens like in shape – a good example would be pigeon peas (toor dal). 
  • Peas are peeled from their pods fresh and then dried (example – dried green peas). Their round shape makes them easier to identify. 
  • Chickpeas are angular in shape. 
  • Dals are split versions of all pulses. 

Confused? This infographic should help 🙂

An infographic on different types of pulses

Examples of commonly used pulses in Indian food

Let’s take a closer look at some of the commonly used pulses in Indian cuisine.

Toor/Arhar/ Pigeon Peas

Toor dal in a white bowl

This is the most popular of all the dals and can be found on most restaurant menus as well as homes across India. It is most commonly found in its split and skinless version, but the whole toor dal is also a popular meal option in many parts of the country.  

Recipes that use Toor dal

Link to buy Toor dal

Mung (green gram)

There are 3 kinds of mung beans (green gram) available in the market – 

An overhead shot of split green gram, split green gram with skin and green gram
Dhuli moong dal (split green gram), Moong dal chilka (split green gram with skin), and Mung (green gram)

Dhuli moong dal (split green gram)  When green gram is split and skinned, you get dhuli moong dal (split green gram) which is yellow in color. This yellow moong dal as it is popularly known is easy to cook and digest. This makes it perfect for babies, sick, and convalescent people. 

Recipes that use dhuli moong dal/split green gram

Moong dal chilka (split green gram with skin)This variety of split green gram is unskinned and is often used to make dal. 

Recipes that use moong dal chilka (split green gram with skin)

Mung (green gram)– The whole mung bean (green gram) is green in color.  Whole mung beans are used as sprouts to be added to salads, soups, and snacks. They are also used to make curries. 

Recipes that use whole moong dal 

Link to buy Green Gram (Mung), Split green gram (dhuli moong dal), and Moong dal chilka (split green gram with skin)

Masoor whole (red lentil) / Masoor dal (split red lentil)

Masoor dal (split red lentils) and red lentils in a white bowl
Masoor/Malka/ Red lentil

This lentil has brown skin and is deep reddish-orange inside. This is another common dal that is very popular across the country. It is found in two varieties – the whole (red lentil) and the split skinless (masoor/malka).

Like mung beans, the whole masoor can also be used as sprouts. They are cooked as stews, to which they provide a pleasant earthy flavor. 

Recipes that use the whole masoor and split skinless (masoor)

Link to buy masoor dal and whole red lentils

Black chana (black chickpea) and chana dal (Bengal gram)

Chana and Chana dal served in white bowls
Chana / Chana dal

The black chickpea (kala chana) is used either whole or split skinless as a dal. The whole chana is used for sprouts, while the split skinless chana (chana dal) is another very versatile and commonly used ingredient in many Indian dishes in tempering and in dals.

The flour of the split skinless chana, called besan, is used to make besan laddoos, Mysore pak and as a batter to fry fritters (pakoras)

Recipes that use black chickpeas 

Recipes that use chana dal

Link to buy chana dal and kala chana

Kabuli Chana/Garbanzo Beans/Chhole

Kabuli chana served in white bowl
Kabuli Chana

Kabuli chana or chhole, as it is more popularly known in India, is the main ingredient of one of the most iconic dishes of North India: the ubiquitous channa masala. The curry is made with Garbanzo beans and is typically served with deep-fried bhatura bread. Chhole is usually used whole and is rarely split. Kabuli chana is high in protein and fiber.

Recipes that use Kabuli chana

  1. Chana masala
  2. Kadle Manoli (Chana with tindora)

Link to buy Kabuli chana 

Rajma (Kidney Beans)

kidney beans / rajma
kidney beans/rajma

Rajma is a quintessentially North Indian dish made into a rich robust curry with loads of tomatoes and onions. The beans used to make this dish are usually deep red (Jammu rajma) or a pretty pink from Himachal, but there are many different varieties that range from white to black to all the shades in between. They can be striped, spotted, and mottled.

Recipes that use kidney beans

Link to buy rajma

Lobia/Chawli/Cowpea/Black-eyed peas

Black eyed peas in a white bowl

Lobiya has a very distinct earthy flavor and is used in curries and salads. It can be mashed to make a stuffing for patties or paratha.

Recipes that use chowli

Link to buy chowli

Sabut urad (black matpe beans)

3 varieties of Urad dal in a white bowl
Split urad dal without skin, urad gota (skinless matpe beans), and sabut urad (black matpe beans)

Sabut urad is perhaps one of the most versatile dals. It looks like mung beans when whole but has black glossy skin. It also comes in 4 varieties – sabut urad (black matpe beans), urad gota (skinless matpe beans), split urad dal with skin, and skinless split urad dal. 

  • Skinless split urad dal – Used in making recipes like dahi vada and idli dosa batter. It is also added to tempering in south Indian recipes such as this delicious coconut chutney
  • Urad gota (skinless matpe beans) – Also used in idli dosa batter, this is the skinless version of the whole black matpe bean.
  • Sabut urad (black matpe beans) – These unskinned whole beans are used to make the famous dal makhani. 
  • Split urad dal with skin –  This can also be used for idli batter, but it requires several rinses to remove the skin.

Link to buy skinless split urad dal, urad gota, sabut urad (whole urad), Split urad dal with skin

Vatana (dried green peas) & Safed vatana (dried white peas)

Peas or matar (both the white and green variety) are very popular in Indian cuisine. The peas need to be soaked before they can be cooked.

Recipes that use vatana / dried green peas / matar

Recipes that use safed vatana

Link to buy green vatana and safed vatana

Kulthi/Kuleeth/Kollu/ Horse Gram

Horse gram in a white bowl
Horse gram / Kulith

Once used as a staple food for horses and cattle, this lentil is high in iron, calcium, and protein is considered a superfood. It is often used in curries and dals. 

A recipe that uses kulthi

Link to buy horse gram

How to cook pulses

Lentils don’t need to be soaked, but beans should. Here’s why. This post goes into detail on how to cook legumes and the cooking times for each of them. 

How to store pulses

Always store pulses in a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight. 

Best place to buy pulses

Your local Indian store is your best bet – it will be the cheapest here. If you don’t have access to one, Amazon is a good place to buy. I have all the pulses grouped in one convenient location on my Amazon list for you to shop.

Additional resources to read

Everything you wanted to know about pulses

Hope this article helped you today and if you have any questions, please drop a comment below. 

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  1. Super explanation of pulses. Fantastic organization of tremendous amounts of information.
    Thanks for your hard work.
    A ton of my questions are answered in a highly detailed document.