Legumes: beans, lentils, peas, chickpeas, are the seeds of a family of plants, making them a rich source of nutrients, as they basically contain everything necessary for new life. A staple in some cuisines (such as in my homeland Cyprus or in India) they are hardly used here in Germany. Unfortunately here it's all about meat, meat and more meat, unless you're a vegetarian, in which case you go for tofu.
I say unfortunately because legumes have a lot to offer. Not only are they nutritious, full of fibre, polyphenols and a source of protein, they are also cheap and tasty. Admittedly, they get their bad rep because they can be difficult to digest. This is because they contain oligosaccharides, a type of sugar that our bodies can’t digest well, so when it lands in the lower part of the digestive system it ferments and we all know what that means. They also contain substances called lectins as well as phytic acid, which are beneficial for plants (their job is to keep away predators to make sure the plant thrives) but not so much for us humans.
I'm not saying you should stubbornly continue to eat them if you know you're sensitive to them. However, the way you prepare them can make a huge difference in how well you digest them. Changing it might be just what you need to be able to enjoy them, albeit in small portions if needed.
Many people have heard of "overnight soaking", mainly to speed up the cooking process the next day. This technique definitely helps reduce some unwanted side-effects, but there's much more you can do:
1. Use bicarbonate soda. Simply add a teaspoon of baking soda to the water you put your legumes in. Stir them in and bring to a boil. Then turn off the heat and let the beans soak at least four hours or overnight. Drain, rinse and rinse again. I have also heard of people adding a splash of soda in the water just before beans are cooked enough. I haven't tried this myself, but it makes sense to do so.
2. Use a pressure cooker. Mind you, they still need to be soaked overnight, but cooking them in high pressure makes them much easier to digest than just boiling them. If you don't have a pressure cooker and need to boil them, change the boiling water at least twice.
3. Soak them for at least 12 hours in warm water, draining and rinsing them every 3 hours. Just leaving them in water overnight is not enough. Even better is to soak them for 48 hours. The longer the better. If the water is very hard, then use filtered water.
4. Sprout (those that sprout). I have tried to sprout all beans I love, but only chickpeas and lentils do so easily. Here's how to do it.
5. Soak and cook with kombu, an edible kelp which you can easily find in any organic store. It's expensive to buy, but you only need to use a strip in the water you use every time. It contains the enzyme needed to break down the oligosaccharides. Your kitchen might have a slightly fishy smell, but the legumes won't.
6. Wait until the cooking legumes are tender but not quite done to add a splash of apple cider vinegar to the pot. The apple cider vinegar also breaks down indigestible sugars to help digestion.
What about canned beans?
In my experience, canned beans are quite hard to digest. Many of them include salt, giving you a great amount of the recommended daily sodium intake in one go. There's also the issue of BPA, or Bisphenol A, which is a hormone disruptor and needs to be avoided. If you are in a hurry, choose ready-made beans in a glass container rather than a can.
One of my favorite legumes is red lentils. They cook in 10 minutes and don't need any pre-soaking. I personally find them very easy to digest. If you cook them long enough, they turn into a puree. It's a nice alternative to rice or other grains and can be spiced up with spices like turmeric and ginger. Here's a favorite recipe.
As always, listen to your body. If it tells you legumes aren't good for you, then don't eat them. But first give them a chance by preparing them the right way!