Wednesday, 20 July 2011


The grasspea closely resembles the sweet pea (Lathyrus odoratus) which is grown as an ornamental in many British gardens, and in others around the world, including in Pakistan. It is also known as the Chickling pea or Chickling vetch (not a chickpea!!) and Indian Vetch. It is now believed to have originated in the Balkan Peninsula, although it may have originated in South-West and Central Asia. It is a member of the Leguminosae family of plants and is related to peas, green beans, and kudzu or pueraria root, among other plants. There are around 187 species and subspecies of Lathyrus growing around the world. Grasspeas have blue, pink or red flowers, usually.
  It is believed to have been domesticated about 8,000 years ago as remains of the plant’s grains have been found in Jarmo, Iraqi Kurdistan, from the Neolithic period. Remains have been found in India dating back to 2,000-1,500 BC and from the Bronze Age in Portugal.
   This plant is an important fodder plant although it is consumed as dhal in India, Bangladesh, and in Pakistan’s Sindh province. However it is ground and used to adulterate chickpea flour (besan) and is somewhat problematic if people consume it over a three month period. In times of famine people use it in their daily diets, particularly in the not so distant past in Ethiopia, where outbreaks of lathyrism have occurred (1995-6 was the last outbreak). This is a paralysis of the lower body which is caused by a neurotoxin in the grain which has been recognized since ancient times, having been mentioned in ancient Sanskrit texts and by Hippocrates. Cultivars with low neurotoxin levels are being produced around the world in an attempt to prevent future outbreaks of the disease.
  The plant is useful in that it is a nitrogen fixer and provides natural fertilizer for farmers. It is resistant to a number of pests, and the seeds have an oil which is extracted and used in traditional medicine. However it is dangerous if you are not a skilled homoeopathist. The seeds contain the vitamins A, and C and some of the B-complex ones, as well as amino acids, minerals such as copper and phosphorous and  phenols, so are nutritious in times of food scarcity. The seeds should be soaked in water for at least 24 hours before cooking.
  Traditionally the seeds are either split and made into dhal or ground and made into bread. They can also be made into a paste and shaped into balls which are added to curries, or they can be simply boiled and eaten as a pulse. The leaves may be put into soups and stews and eaten as a green vegetable after boiling. The seeds are hulled and dried before using.
  In some parts of the Indian sub-continent, the pods are boiled, salted and sold by street vendors, as tasty snacks.
  They have been used in different parts of the world as a “vaccine” against poliomyelitis; in 1850 there was a polio epidemic in Johannesburg, South Africa, and a Doctor Taylor Smith protected 85 people with extracts of the grasspea. Of those people, twelve were known to have come into close contact with the disease, but none of the 85 caught the disease. Once again in 1975, there was a polio epidemic, this time in Buenos Aires, and 40,000 people were protected by Lathyrus sativus, and none of them, reportedly contracted the disease. This is of course anecdotal evidence and research is needed to see how this might have worked.

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