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Food in the 'Hood

Found a Peanut

“The Fruit, which are called by Seamen Earth-Nuts, are brought from Guinea in the Negroes Ships, to feed the Negroes withal in their Voyage from Guinea to Jamaica,” the English physician Hans Sloane observed in the early 18th century. Many commentators assumed that the peculiar nuts carried in the holds of slave ships were African foods. The peanuts were, in fact, a basic staple of the West African diet. But they were of American origin. Born in the New World before being transported to Africa, the “earthnuts” were making a return voyage. In the hands of African slaves, the peanut would be transformed once again.

The plant was probably first cultivated in the foothills of the Bolivian Andes. From there it was disseminated through Brazil, Paraguay, and neighboring lands. The Indians, who tilled it, would carry the peanut as far as the Caribbean. The legume and its bounty of underground nut-filled pods was highly esteemed in the ancient civilizations of Peru. Archaeologists have unearthed funeral vases decorated with likenesses of the pods. A necklace found in coastal Peru that dated back to between 200 and 800 A.D. had 10 gold and 10 silver peanut-shaped beads. Scientists have even found the ground on their sites strewn with peanut shells.

In the peanut’s American heartland, cooks capitalized on its culinary assets. A creamy peanut sauce spiced with chilis is spread over chicken in the Peruvian classic, aji de gallina. Potatoes are draped with peanut dressing in papas arequipina, another Peruvian dish. The people of the Bolivian highlands fashioned a bracing peanut soup, sopa de mani, to fortify them in this chilly region.

Westerners who first encountered the plants were often dismissive. The 16th century Spanish writer Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo y Vales noticed the Arawak Indians in the Caribbean growing peanuts: “They sow and harvest it. It is a very common crop about the size of a pine nut in the shell.” Although they enjoyed raw and roasted peanuts and considered them a healthy food, Oviedo was not persuaded. The nut had a “very mediocre taste and little substance.” Most Christians, he wrote, shunned the vulgar legume. Heaping more scorn, Oviedo called the peanut a food for people “who would eat anything.” Bernabe Cobo, a Spanish missionary, blamed the peanut for a variety of maladies. Raw peanuts, he said, can cause headaches, migraines, and giddiness.

Another observer, the Portuguese naturalist Soares de Souza, who visited Brazil in the late 16th century, was struck by an unusual quality of peanut farming. It was the essential province of women: “The plants are grown in a loose humid soil the preparation of which has not involved any male human being, only the female Indians plant and their husbands know nothing about these labours. If the husbands of their male slaves were to plant them they would not sprout; the females also harvest them.”

The plant’s peculiar appearance made the peanut even more difficult to embrace. Unlike the familiar cashew and almond, it did not grow on trees. The confounding peanut bears its flowers above ground and its fruits below. Jean de Flores, a 16th century French missionary, struggled to describe the baffling plants: “They grow in the soil like truffles connected to one another by fine filaments.”  After the peanut’s yellow flowers wither, the stem bends and burrows into the ground.  A shell, an ingenious protection against predators, soon forms. The pod encloses what looks like nuts but which are actually edible seeds. This makes the peanut a legume, not a nut. The plant’s botanical name, arachis hypogea, Greek for the “weed whose fruit grows underground,” is most fitting.

If the peanut had any value to the colonials, it was for sweets. Like the almond of which they were fond, it could be made into marzipan-like treats. Naturalist Soares notes that peanuts were “cut and covered with sugar as confections” by Portuguese women in Brazil.

As they built their overseas empires, the Spaniards and the Portuguese carried the peanut along their shipping routes. The seeds were stored in Spanish galleons that sailed across the Pacific from Peru in the 16th century. In the Phillipines, a Spanish colony where the ships unloaded cargo, the peanut was given its original Indian name, mani. The legume ultimately arrived in China. The Chinese were fascinated by the imports. They called them lo-hua-sheng, seeds “born from flowers fallen to the ground.” After this happens, the plant develops seeds that resemble “silkworm cocoons,” a Chinese historian observed. The legume proved to be a valuable crop in its new home. The peanut flourished in sandy soil and injected nitrogen into the earth, which kept it fertile. Chinese royalty, who ate the “longevity” nut at banquets, were early adopters. In time peanuts were taken up by commoners, who boiled and roasted them.

The Chinese took the peanut to Southeast Asia, where it was often known as kachang (the Chinese bean). In Indonesia, a salad of bean sprouts, green beans, fried bean curd, cucumbers, and other vegetables is enriched with a piquant peanut sauce. Gado Gado (mixture), the dish’s intriguing name, was a fixture of the country’s waroengs, or snack houses. Satés, skewers of grilled meat, a street food in Indonesia and other Southeast Asian lands, is offered with a peanut sauce for dipping. In order to make the sauce, peanuts in Indonesia, Asian food scholar Bruce Cost points out, were traditionally first roasted in a wok filled with river sand. The Thais, who share the affection for the legume, make Penang Gai, a silky smooth chicken curry that combines the nutty flavor of ground peanuts with the creaminess of coconut milk. Chopped peanuts provide a pleasant crunch to Pad Thai, the Thai noodle standard.

Portuguese mariners also carried peanuts on their voyages. The Iberians, historian A.J.R. Russell Wood reports, spread the plants of the Americas to new locations. Peanuts — as well as pineapples, sweet potatoes, maize, and manioc — were brought to West Africa in the early 16th century. The new arrival did not startle the Africans, as it had the Europeans. They were already acquainted with a similar legume, the Bambara groundnut, which grows underground. Traveling in Mali, the West African state, in the early 14th century, Muslim writer Ibn Battuta was struck by a “grain” that the Africans were harvesting. It reminded him of the fava bean, a staple in Arab cooking. “They roast and eat it, the taste being like that of roast chickpeas.” The Malians were also making peanut fritters: “Sometimes they grind this grain to make a kind of round spongy dough which they fry.”

The peanut supplanted the Bambara as field plant and food stuff. Compared to the oil-rich peanut, the woody seeded legume yielded a meager product. Grown more easily, the peanut also had a more abundant harvest. Even as it lost favor among the Africans, the traditional nut’s name lived on. In different countries, people attached their language’s word for the Bambaro to the peanut. Nguba, for example, the Zairian word for both nuts, was the origin of the peanut’s nickname in the U.S., “goober.”

The peanut immeasurably strengthened the African diet. It was hungrily appropriated in cultures desperate for protein. Roasted nuts were converted into pastes for soups or stews or hawked by street vendors. The staple was processed into cooking oil. Peanut soup remains an essential part of the West African cook’s repertoire. A bowl of the thick reddish brown purée redolent of ground peanuts, tomatoes, and onions has the zing of chili pepper. (It can be served with or without meat). The stew-like soup is typically accompanied by fufu, a starchy mass of plantains, cassava, maize, or other carbohydrate which has been relentlessly pounded and mashed. A sort of African mashed potatoes, the fufu sops up the tasty gravy.

When slave ships hauled African captives to the Americas, peanuts and other foods loved by the captives were taken as provisions. Its hard shell made the legume a top choice for captains stocking items for a long voyage. In the United States, where the peanut reached the East Coast in the 17th century, slaves planted peanuts, watermelon, okra, black-eyed peas,  and other crops of African origin. “Sometimes Massa let [slaves] have a little patch,” a former slave quoted by food historian Andrew Smith recalled. “They’d raise taters or goobers.” African cooking customs were also recreated. Slaves prepared peanut pie and peanut soup. They gathered for festive peanut boilings, historian Joseph Holloway points out.

The transplant was, however, saddled with a lowly reputation. It was considered suitable only for feeding the destitute and for “hogging off,” fattening up pigs. Because of its connection to slavery, the peanut carried a stigma. In Brazil, peanut brittle was dubbed “pé de moleque,” or foot of the street urchin. During slavery, black children were given the name moleque, a demeaning term. To gain broader appeal, the peanut needed a more attractive image.

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Peanut Purveyors

 At Banana Leaves, a pan-Asian restaurant (2020 Fla. Ave.; 202-986-1333), Gado Gado, the tangy Indonesia salad, is one of the eatery’s varied appetizers.

Burma Restaurant (740 6th St., 2nd Fl.; 202-638-1280) offers unique salads like Spring Ginger and Green Tea Leaf that are garnished with peanuts.

Introduce yourself to peanut soup at the Ghana Café, the West African restaurant formerly in Adams Morgan and now at 1336 14th St., NW; 202-387-3845.

 

Joel Denker, a Peace Corp volunteer in Africa many years ago, is the author of Capital Flavors: Exploring Washington's Ethnic Restaurants (1988, Seven Locks Press), which evolved from his series in this newspaper two decades ago, known then as "The Ethnic Bazaar." He is also the author of The World on a Plate: A Tour Through the History of America's Ethnic Cuisine (paperback, 2007 / University of Nebraska Press), in which part of one chapter was drawn from articles that originally had appeared in this space. In addition, he has written about ethnic food for the Boston Globe, the Philadelphia Enquirer, Washingtonian, as well as continuing his monthly food column with The InTowner.

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