Lupini or lupine beans are the seeds of several cultivars in the Lupinus genus. These plants have traditionally been grown as ornamentals in the garden, and because they are in the legume family, when they go to seed, they make pods filled with beans. At some point, the Romans realized that the seeds of some lupines could probably be eaten, and lupini beans entered the Mediterranean diet. Commonly, these beans come from white, Andean, blue, or yellow lupines. They come with a caution, however, as they contain bitter alkaloids which can be poisonous if the beans are not treated properly.
In order to make lupini beans edible, the beans have to be soaked in a brine solution to draw out the alkaloids. Typically, the beans are washed first and then soaked in a brine which is changed until the brine no longer tastes bitter, indicating that the alkaloids in the beans have been leached out. It can take as many as five days with twice daily changes of the brine to make the beans safe to eat and tasty, although a varietal known as sweet lupinis requires somewhat less soaking. When properly soaked, these beans have a great flavor, and they are also very high in protein, making them a good choice for vegans and vegetarians.
These beans are usually sold dry, requiring consumers to soak them and husk the bitter shells away. After soaking, lupini beans can be cooked in a variety of recipes or eaten as a snack food. Some producers make pickled lupini beans which are ready to eat right out of the jar, although consumers usually like to pop the husks away. In the Mediterranean and Latin America, these beans are a popular snack; pickled beans can sometimes be found at bars for people to munch on while they drink beer.
Because of the potentially dangerous alkaloids in these beans, they didn't become an overwhelmingly popular source of food until cultivars with a lower alkaloid level were developed. Botanists are working on a variety which will not need to be soaked at all to make these beans a more convenient food source. Lupini beans are known by a number of aliases, including tirmis or altramuz.
Import stores may carry lupini beans, and they can also be grown at home if you live in a temperate zone. Be sure to purchase seeds which are from edible varieties of lupine; try using a catalog of Mediterranean or Latin American beans to order from to ensure that you plant the right sort of lupines. While in flower, the plants will be decorative, and once the seed pods appear, you can allow them to dry on the stalk before collecting and storing the beans. Be aware that even with soaking, some people still react to lupini beans; if you have not tried these beans before, eat a small amount to determine how sensitive you are to the alkaloids which remain after soaking.