Lablab: The Bountiful, Beautiful Legume

By Elena Davert

Although it is often sold as an ornamental flower in the U.S., the lablab has numerous benefits. This legume, native to sub-Saharan Africa, is both a versatile food staple and tool for land restoration.

The Lablab, native to sub-Saharan Africa, is both a versatile food staple and tool for land restoration. (Photo credit: Lost Crops of Africa)

From humid lowlands to dry highlands, the lablab is easy to plant and even easier to care for. It stays green and productive throughout the dry season when food is generally hard to come by. It is popular as a food crop in many other parts of the world, in addition to sub-Saharan Africa, including India, the Philippines, and elsewhere in the Asian tropics.

The pods, seeds, and leaves of the lablab are all edible and utilized in a variety of different meals–though its raw, dry seeds can be poisonous if not prepared correctly. The young pods are most often picked from the stalk and eaten like green beans or snow peas, but they can also be cooked and added to soups and stews. The leaves can be eaten whole or made into a seasoning herb for other dishes.

While the pods and leaves look similar to those of other legume varieties, they have much higher protein content and are an excellent source of iron. They also contain a good balance of amino acids, making lablab pods a good complement for cereal-based diets.

In India, dried seeds are split like lentils and used in making stews and soups. They are also sprouted, soaked in water, shelled, boiled, and smashed into a paste, which is fried with spices and used as a condiment. In Africa, lablab seeds are often boiled with maize, ground and fried, or added to soups as well. They are also included in traditional dish that is a mixture of maize, beans, bananas, potatoes, and green vegetables, all boiled down into a protein-rich paste.

In addition to being used as a source of food, lablab grows quickly and provides high yields, making it ideal for grazing for cattle, sheep, goats, and pigs. It can also easily be intercropped, restoring nitrogen to soils and helping repair degraded farm land. It is considered a good cover crop in coffee and coconut plantations and is often planted as a second recovery crop in rice fields after the harvest.

And while they are best known for their rural uses, lablab plants are also used to form hedges in urban settings. In The Cooperative Republic of Guyana, the government has encouraged city dwellers to grow ornamental varieties along fence lines to both provide protein for households and decoration for yards and along the street.

While the lablab’s popularity has spread throughout much of South and Southeast Asia, it has received less attention in much of Africa because it is eclipsed by the common use of its cousin, the soybean. In the face of climate change and drought, however, this resilient and delicious plant is likely to make a quick—and beautiful—comeback.

To learn more about vegetables indigenous to Africa, read The Taming of the Dika: West Africa’s Most Eligible Wild Tree, Moringa: The Giving Tree, Black-eyed Peas to the Rescue, Native African Vegetables Could Help Solve Food Crises, Traditional Food Crops Provide Community Resilience in Face of Climate Change,and Kenyan Professor Promotes Indigenous Food to Solve Climate Change Food Crisis.

Elena Davert is a Research Intern with the Nourishing the Planet Project.

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