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Lost Crops of Africa: Volume II: Vegetables
In parts of tropical Asia lablab is a popular, even important, food. For the rural population of southern India, for instance, this crop supplies a considerable proportion of the protein in the daily diet. Both there and in other regions of India young lablab pods are widely consumed as a vegetable—boiled like French beans, dumped into curries…things like that. Sometimes the immature seeds are extracted from the green pods and boiled or roasted for dinner.
And India is not the only tropical Asian nation to exploit lablab. Farther east, the mature seeds are treated like soybeans: boiled and processed into tofu or fermented into tempeh. The sprouts are said to compare in flavor and quality with those of mung bean. The leaves and flowers are consumed like spinach (most notably in a famous Indonesian dish that goes by the generalized name of “lablab”). And the seeds have been processed like soybean into a protein concentrate.
The strange thing about this nutritional cornucopia of Asia is that it is, by origin, African. Stranger still is the fact that the plant is almost unknown to the present-day inhabitants of its native continent. Whereas it certainly can be grown in almost all regions of Subsaharan Africa, lablab’s use as a vegetable seems all but unknown and has not been pursued vigorously in any of them until, perhaps, recent years.
“Shameful” certainly seems to be the right word for this. The fact that little or no help is being provided this food plant in its home territory, where malnutrition is chronic, is more than distressing. Making the situation particularly ironic is the reality that this local counterpart of the soybean possesses qualities that could prove exceptionally valuable for Africa’s rural development and environmental stability. Beyond being a prolific food producer, lablab thrives on relatively acid soil of low fertility and high aluminum toxicity. Its penetrating roots draw nourishment from deep below the surface. And this vigorous legume improves the land’s nitrogen content through the action of the highly active beneficial bacteria residing in nodules on its roots.
Lablab is also suited to poor-people’s needs. The plant is simple to establish and easy to manage under subsistence conditions. It gives high yields. It resists droughts that affect leguminous crops that farmers now