The grass pea was a new experience for me. I wouldn’t have tried it if he hadn’t brought some to me from his village in Jharkhand. The legume, Lathyrus Sativus, is also known as Khesari Dal, Lang, and Laag in Gujarati. It has been notorious for causing lathyrism – an irreversible neurological disorder that causes paralysis in the lower limbs. My acquaintance told me that the people of her village eat it on a regular basis.
The legume, which is similar to toor dal, can be eaten in the form of sattu (a protein-rich mixture of pulses, cereals, and wheat flour), added to wheat flour for rotis or puris, and even boiled as a dal. My friend suggested that I use grass peas to make pakoris (fritters) and add them to a curried potato (see recipe).
It is a staple crop for people with low incomes because it is easy to grow in fallow land, rotates with other crops, and requires little or no investment. It is resistant to pests, biotic stress, and salinity. The grass pea is second only to the soybean in terms of protein content. It also contains L-homoarginine, which has heart health benefits.
In the late 19th Century, it was associated with lathyrism. A 1904 report by Andrew Buchanan, then Indian Medical Service officer, states that an outbreak of the disease occurred in 1833 in Saugor Territories in present-day Madhya Pradesh. In the report, Buchanan notes that some cases were reported during years of famine when people relied solely on grass peas as food in northern and central areas.
India banned the storage and sale of grass peas in 1961 under the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act of 1954 on the grounds that it was harmful to health. All states except Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, and West Bengal followed the ban. Researchers from the Indian Institute of Science in Bengaluru identified a chemical found in the seeds as the culprit.
According to studies, people who consume large amounts of legumes (more than 40% of their caloric intake for more than three months) during malnutrition periods could build up enough toxins in order to develop lathyrism.
The Government didn’t ban the cultivation because farmers claimed it was used for animal feed. So, the human consumption also continued. Tradition says that soaking the bean for a few days and dumping the water can reduce the toxin content by 80-90%. The ban has been in place for a long time, but the traditional use of this legume continues. In 1966, Pusa 24 was the first low-ss ODAP variety released for cultivation. Since then, several other low-toxin types have been introduced. A parliamentary committee on agriculture requested the Centre in 1994 to accelerate such development. In 1995, the Government launched the All India Coordinated Research Project (MULLaRP), which promotes the crops and develops high-yielding types.
In 2015, a committee of experts, including the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), Food Safety and Standards Authority of India(FSSAI), and other stakeholders, recommended lifting the ban based on these advances. The Government lifted the ban a year later. However, there is no official notification yet. In a 2021 notification, the FSSAI only permitted a 2 percent incidental presence of legumes in other grains.
The future of legumes is now in question since they could be a food source when conventional crops fail due to climate change. A 2018 study published in the Journal of Neurosciences in Rural Practice found that there were no lathyrism cases in the last three decades.
Scientists are working on assisting research into improved varieties. In January 2023, researchers from the National Agri-Food Biotechnology Institute in Mohali published the genome of Pusa 24, a variety. Scientists from the UK published “annotated draft genome assemblies of grass pea” in February. This was to identify and select traits for agronomic improvements.
DAL PAKORI SABJI RECIPE
- Grass pea: 50 g
- Potatoes: 200 g
- Green chilies:
- Cumin seeds: 1 tablespoon
- Chilli powder: 12 teaspoon
- Turmeric powder: 12 teaspoon
- Half a teaspoon of coriander powder
- Salt is a taste.
- Oil for frying
Soak the peas for 4 hours. Grind it into a paste, discarding the water. Mix the paste with the onion, green chilies, and salt. In a pan, heat oil and fry small amounts of paste until the pakoris become crisp. They can be set aside. Add two tablespoons of oil to another pan and mix cumin seeds with turmeric powder, chili powder, coriander, and salt. Pour two cups of water and add the potatoes. Add more tomatoes, onions, and garlic to the gravy. Cover the potatoes and cook until soft. Add the pa-kors gently to the sauce. Sabji can be served with rice or roti.