Protein 101 for vegetarians (how to make a lentil burger)

Richard Cornish's recipe for a lentil burger (recipe from: My Year Without Meat).
Richard Cornish's recipe for a lentil burger (recipe from: My Year Without Meat). Photo: Richard Cornish

Good Food's much-loved Brain Food columnist Richard Cornish put his body on the line in the interests of food journalism, giving up his beloved meat-heavy diet for his newly released book, 'My Year Without Meat'. This extract from the chapter 'Loaded language against lentils'  begins with an assessment of his diet with well-known nutritionist Catherine Saxelby. 

[Saxelby] quizzed me on the food I was eating, making sure that I was preparing food made from whole grains such as brown rice and barley, and giving a tick to the renaissance of quinoa, freekeh (smoked cracked wheat) and faro. 'Whole grains plus legumes, such as chickpeas, lentils and beans, plus the small amount of cheese and eggs, will look after your protein,' she explained. 'But there are a lot of nutrients in meat and fish that are more difficult to get from a vegetarian diet. What you may run short of are iron and zinc.'


 Photo: Melbourne University Press

Iron is found in whole grains and leafy greens but the iron is not readily available to the body; it is more accessible when eaten with vitamin C — a lemon-juice-based dressing, she explained, is perfect. Zinc, which is responsible for our immunity and sense of smell, is best absorbed from seafood such as oysters, red meat and chicken. It is also found in grains and vegetables. 'Vitamin B12, essential for the prevention of anaemia, is basically found in red meat and some in eggs,' said Catherine, 'although there is evidence that mushrooms can provide vitamin B12.' She also suggested a diet rich in flax seed, walnuts or pecan nuts for plant-based omega-3... 

'Good luck and watch out for bacon!' she said in high spirits that barely concealed an underlying serious tone. 'Cured pig flesh is the one thing that unsticks so many people trying to give up meat because it has such an enticing aroma.'

With those words of warning ringing in my ears I turned my attention to understanding the concept of protein. It had been two months since I had gone meat-free and I felt that I didn't really understand many of the basics of what food contains what nutrition, and which nutrition does what in the human body.

Proteins are building blocks in the human body. They make up our muscles, skin, hair, eyes, organs and toenails. Protein itself is made up of amino acids joined together with other bits and pieces. Protein is like a chunk of preassembled Lego blocks that is made up of loads of little interlinked blocks of amino acids that the body pulls apart and rearranges according to need. When we eat, the protein in food is deconstructed into its constituent amino acids by the enzymes and chemicals in our digestive system. Our body then reassembles these amino acids into all sorts of new proteins that form our very beings. Pinch yourself. Pinch yourself hard.

Everything you feel from the skin between your fingers to the pain itself involves protein. Nutritionists divide the amino acids that make up protein into two different kinds: essential and non-essential. Essential amino acids are histidine, leucine, isoleucine, valine, lysine, threonine, tryptophan, methionine and phenylalanine. Which sound more like animo superheroes than compounds essential for the healthy functioning of the adult human body. These are found together in what nutritionists have traditionally referred to as a 'complete protein'. It is interesting to note that there are other amino acids the human body requires to survive, but we have found a way of synthesising these ourselves in our own bodies. Until recently the message was to eat complete proteins daily. This thinking continues, with health and diet manuals turning over the same instructions to
eat red meat, poultry, seafood, eggs and dairy products, as they contain complete protein. 

How to get complete protein from vegetables?

Most vegetables, however, don't contain all the essential amino acids. There are global culinary traditions that have cleverly overcome this. The town of Atlixco is a fine example; it sits under the shadow of Popocat.petl, an active volcano in Central Mexico. It is always growling and sending off puffs of smoke, threatening to erupt. Which gives the locals a fatalistic attitude to life and a dark sense of humour—a local baker bakes conical
buns finished with white sugar at the apex, as a replica of Popocat.petl. As if, somehow, by making an effigy of the snow-capped summit it would stay that way and not be suddenly melted by a surge of hot gas and lava blasting from the bowels of the earth. There has been a market in the town since long before the conquistadors arrived in Mexico. Five hundred or so years later and not much has changed. Instead of woven palm mats, market-stall holders now lay out blue plastic tarpaulin on which they display the piles of black, red, yellow and brown beans they sell. I had visited the area shortly before researching and shooting photographs for a book on Mexican food. 

In the heart of the market was a middle-aged couple who tended to their piles of different coloured beans. She would rake them every now and then to keep their pyramid shape but also to create some colour and movement to attract the shoppers. One lot of beans was pinkish brown with mottled dark-brown marks on its skin. These were called frijoles culebra or snake beans. They had been bred sometime in the distant past to be planted alongside corn seeds. As the corn grew and unfurled its long broad leaves, the bean shoots would follow, snaking a leading tendril around the stalk as they grew together skyward. Harvested and dried together, they were both stored for eating throughout the year. If the Mexicans had grown and eaten just one without the other, they would have had an incomplete diet, unless they went out hunting for wildfowl, fish or small deer. Most beans are deficient in methionine, while corn lacks lysine and tryptophan.

Together the corn and grain formed the binary food foundation for much of the diet of Mesoamericans, complemented by squash and tomatoes from the garden, and wild herbs, or quiletes, from the surrounding woods. The Mesoamericans also discovered that if dried corn is soaked in water, with a little lime added, the proteins in the corn bind together to form a dough. The process is called nixtamalisation. Without nixtamalisation we
would never have had tacos. An added benefit is the release of available niacin, a B-group vitamin that staves off the dietary disease of pellagra. On this diet the Aztecs created shining cities of pyramids and floating farms that awed the Spaniards.

Many empires have been built on pulses and grains. Roman centurions marched on porridges of barley and fava beans. The power of the maharajah was based on armies marching on lentils and rice. The Chinese emperors led armies fed on fermented soy and rice. The grain and legume dietary duo is mirrored in Europe, where broad beans and barley are sown together.

What is interesting is the underlying bias in contemporary nutritional literature towards meat, describing it as 'complete'. The implication being that most vegetables are 'incomplete', from which the obvious inference is made that vegetables are inferior. It's logically correct but words have more than one meaning. Seventy per cent of the protein in the Western diet comes from animal protein. In the rest of the world more than 60 per cent of the population's protein comes from vegetable protein. In the reductionist world of nutritional numbers and statistics, a steak is supreme and lentils lesser. Figures like these, however, don't take into account the concept of culture.

In traditional diets where meat is scarce or not eaten for cultural reasons, cuisines have developed that combine legumes with whole grains and vegetables. Indians eat lentils. Yes. But in a meal that most likely will also contain rice, wheat, cheese or yoghurt, and other vegetables. Mexicans eat corn. Yes. In the form of tortillas, filled with cooked beans, cheese and perhaps foraged wild greens.

In the protein argument against the vegetarian diet, it is steak versus vegetables. Steak will always win in this loaded game. It's a simple concept and easy to comprehend. It underpins much of the understanding of the vegetarian diet and informs a lot of the bias and prejudice against vegetarians. It's like pitting Tom Jones in an eisteddfod against Art Garfunkel. Meaty old Tom is always going to win against reedy little Garfunkel. But combine Art with his naturally occurring companion Paul Simon and you create a completely different beast with amazing range, complexity and nuance.

Arguments hate complexity, so it's rare the meat-versus-veg-protein argument pits lean beef against corn tortillas with refried beans, or lamb chops take on spiced dhal and rice. It's usually just one lump of an imal versus one lump of vegetable. The language we use to describe food does not make for a fair fight.

Lentil Burgers

Lentil patties helped Richard Cornish power through his Year Without Meat.

Lentil patties helped Richard Cornish power through his Year Without Meat. Photo: Richard Cornish

This is the recipe for the patties. I think you know how to assemble a burger. Toast the bun. Add a layer of mayo, lettuce, patty, cheese, sauce, onion, beetroot, pineapple, etc.

2 cups yellow dhal, raw
250g sourdough breadcrumbs
1 tomato, chopped
20 basil leaves
1 teaspoon garam masala
2 eggs
salt and pepper to taste



Soak the dhal in a bowl of water for an hour. Drain.

Place in a medium saucepan with 4 cups of water and cook over medium heat for 20 minutes or until the dhal is soft. Drain.

Mix all the ingredients in a bowl (or blender).

Using clean hands, form the mixture into 12 equal patties.

Heat some oil in a heavy frying pan and fry each side for five minutes or until golden. Serve hot in a toasted bun with burger favourites.
Makes 12

This is an edited extract from My Year Without Meat by Richard Cornish (MUP, $29.99), available now at Melbourne University Press