Lentils have dumped their hippie image and become a key part of every fashionable cook's repertoire - but they're still healthy!

As they contain lots of protein and fibre, lentils are a great vegetarian food. Unlike beans, it is not always necessary to soak lentils before cooking, especially split ones which cook quickly. In India lentils are known as 'dal' and there are many varieties. These are some of the more well known ones:

PUY LENTILS - small, dark green lentils with a peppery flavour. They are prized in French cookery as they hold their shape well when cooked. Try tossing them in a vinaigrette while they are still warm.

BLACK LENTILS (urad or sabut urad) - these small oblong lentils can be bought either whole or split. Whole may be combined with red kidney beans to make a Punjabi speciality 'maa di dal' and split are often fried in oil with spices at the start of vegetable dishes. Both are quite glutinous and can give a creamy texture to a dish.

RED LENTILS (masoor dal) - whole red lentils are a green-brown colour, and split are more of a salmon-pink to orange colour. Split red lentils are more commonly used, as they cook quicker and are more tender and nuttier in taste.

SPLIT YELLOW LENTILS (channa dal) - these are like yellow split peas and have good flavour and a meaty texture. They can be cooked alone or combined in vegetable, meat or rice dishes. Split yellow lentils can also be added to the popular 'Bombay Mix'.