Peanut: Plant Powerhouse

The common peanut is tragically underrated by most of the modern world.

Not only is this special legume nutritious and versatile, its cultural history is rather interesting.

ETYMOLOGY

The origin of English peanut is rather simplistic: the peanut plant is very similar in above ground appearance to any other related legume, including the flower structure, leaf shape and growing habit.  Alternate common names are ground nut, ground pea and earth nut.  The Southern American colloquial goober is an Anglicization of the Bantu (Kongo, Kimbundu) word for peanut, n-guba (kidney shape). This is a loan word brought to Southern American English by enslaved African populations, who had already been using Spanish peanuts introduced from America in their cuisine since post-Columbian times.  Also of African origin, English pindar nut, pinder, pinda (dialectal obsolete) from Gullah via Kongo mpinda (lit. peanut).  Native American words for peanut include Aztec Nahuatl tlālcacahuatl (earth cocoa bean), Tupi loan word to Brazilian Portuguese manubi and Guarani mandobi (modern Portuguese amendoim).

Because of its linguistic taxonomy in Asia, specifically India, peanuts have been suggested as potential evidence of pre-Columbian trans-oceanic trade.  Sanskrit andapi, Hindi munghali, Gujarati mandavi are recorded instances of possible Native American loan words for peanut.  Another major consumer of peanuts is China, where peanut samples found in archaeological sites have been radiocarbon dated to 2800 BCE.  See Contact And Exchange in the Ancient World by Victor H. Mair for further explanation of these controversial theories with included references.

A chalcedony stone carving of peanuts and dates – China, Qing dynasty, Metropolitan Museum of Art

HISTORY

Peanuts (Arachis Hypogaea L.) are seen as such a humble legume, but this plant is a versatile nutritional and industrial powerhouse.  Indeed, not a botanical nut at all, they are a nut in a culinary capacity only, being more closely related to beans and peas.  An important high nutrient traditional food crop for Native Americans in South America, believed to have originated in Bolivia and Argentina from wild strains still found there today, peanuts are now unjustly thought of in America as little more than a creamy spread to be put on bread.  However, the peanut has many uses and benefits beyond the typical PB&J.

After Portuguese and Spanish galleons brought peanuts to Europe, little interest was shown in the odd nut there and in neighboring countries, a sentiment that persists to this day – much to the frustration of major peanut producers China, India and the United States, whose relentless marketing of peanut products has failed to persuade indifferent French, British and German customers to eat peanuts.  Where it did catch on was Africa and Asia, where they became very important foods, both economically and culturally.  Peanuts are incorporated into some Chinese New Year dishes, with their symbolism including health, long life, birth of prosperity, continuous growth, multiplication in wealth and stability.

The peanut’s popularity in Africa can be attributed to its familiarity: in West Africa there is a similar though somewhat distantly related indigenous plant, Vigna subterranea, Bambara nut, that has been cultivated there for millennia.  Both peanuts and Bambara nuts are part of the Fabaceae family, which encompasses all legumes.  Though the Bambara nut is firmly placed into the same family as other old world beans, the phylogeny of new world peanuts has undergone a few revisions over the years, belonging to a unique a subfamily and tribe (Dalbergieae) that was more recently implemented in the classification of new world legumes.  Regardless, peanuts were enthusiastically planted alongside Bambaras by West Africans and used in all the ways that were already familiar to them.

As with so many other truly iconic foods now considered an inseparable component of Southern cuisine, peanuts were often grown by African slaves for their own consumption.  Brought back to the Americas and introduced to the United States by enslaved West Africans, peanuts came to North America in a rather roundabout way, taking centuries to make the jump from southern Mexico to Virginia and North Carolina.  Otherwise considered pig fodder, peanuts were not regarded as food by Caucasian slave owners – much to their loss, as the legume nuts were made into highly nutritious and rich stews.  This snobbery also resulted in the word goober morphing into a derisive slang term for “low class”.

Despite its ease of cultivation, excellent flavor, high calorie-to-labor and calories per acre (10.98 million kcal per acre) return ratio, it wasn’t until the mid 19th century that peanuts became a more popular and widely consumed domestic foodcrop and even then, their popularity increase was only because of the Civil War.  One of the Confederacy’s biggest hindrances was its lack of adequate food supply for its military, with soldiers regularly succumbing to malnutrition.  Peanuts were a way to provide protein that kept well and was light to carry.  Though peanuts may taste good to most, eating nothing but them for weeks on end often led to a bittersweet sentiment toward the nut.  The humorous song “Eatin’ Goober Peas” was sung by frustrated Confederate soldiers, who often had nothing but peanuts to eat:

Just before the battle the General hears a row,

He says, “The Yanks are coming, I hear the rifles now,”

He turns around in wonder, and what do you think he sees?

The Georgia militia eating goober peas!

Also note this lyrical folk rhyme from 1866, though this one is a little more positive in tone:

Sittin’ by the roadside on a summer’s day,

campin’ with my messmates, passin’ time away

Lying in the shadow underneath a tree,

goodness how delicious, eatin’ goober peas!

Beyond the necessities of war, peanuts eventually became an appreciated crop in America.  Dr. George Carver can be considered the greatest modern American champion of commercial peanut production.  Credited with over 300 uses for the peanut, not limited to animal feed supplementation, ink, cloth dye, paper, cosmetics, organic insecticide, varnish and machine lubricant, among others, Dr. Carver had a lab devoted purely to peanut research at Tuskegee University.  Today many of these applications are still in use, though Dr. Carver only patented three of his discoveries: one for a cosmetic product and two for stain formulas.

But why the particular interest in peanuts?  Dennis Keeney, director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University, wrote in the Leopold Letter:

“Carver worked on improving soils, growing crops with low inputs, and using species that fixed nitrogen (hence, the work on the cowpea and the peanut). Carver wrote in ‘The Need of Scientific Agriculture in the South’: “The virgin fertility of our soils and the vast amount of unskilled labor have been more of a curse than a blessing to agriculture. This exhaustive system for cultivation, the destruction of forest, the rapid and almost constant decomposition of organic matter, have made our agricultural problem one requiring more brains than of the North, East or West.”

Simply put, peanuts were cheap, prolific, easy to cultivate and imbued the stressed soil drained by repeated cotton planting with rich nitrogen, bringing it back to life.  Though there are anecdotes of Dr. Carver’s lack of patents as proof of his charity to poor rural farmers, in actuality he tried in vain for many years to commercialize his discoveries, with little financial success.  Also, you may note that I did not credit Dr. Carver with the invention of peanut butter, as is usually claimed.  Native Americans had been making peanut butter for many millennia while cultivating hundreds of unique heirloom peanut varieties, long before Dr. Carver tried to commercialize it.  Even then, other scientists and pharmacists had received patents for peanut butter prior to his research.

Arachis Hypogaea botanical illustration from the Oxford Herbaria

SCIENCE

Today, there are five main commercial varieties of peanut: Spanish, Runner, Tennessee, Valencia and Virginia.  The average global annual production is 43.9 million tonnes, led by China with 38% of the total, followed by India at 15%.  What makes the peanut such a valuable food crop to this day is its delicious, distinct flavor and rich oil content.  It is so nutritious by volume that it is used by WHO, UNICEF, Doctors Without Borders and other humanitarian organizations in fortified formulations to reverse malnutrition during famine.

Much research has been performed on the health effects of peanuts on different populations.  One of the largest groups sampled was in the study Prospective Evaluation of the Association of Nut /Peanut Consumption With Total and Cause-Specific Mortality by Dr. Hung N. Luu, published in JAMA Internal Medicine May 2015.  The study looked at nut and peanut consumption in two large groups of people spanning geographic, racial, ethnic, and income boundaries:

  • 72,000 Americans, ages 40 to 79, living in 12 Southern states. Most lived on low incomes and two-thirds were African American.
  • 135,000 men and women in Shanghai, China, ages 40 to 74.

The researchers used surveys to tally nut and peanut consumption. They followed the groups for several years and counted how many participants died and from what causes. In the U.S. Southern states group, those who regularly ate peanuts were 21% less likely to have died of any cause over a period of about five years. In the Chinese groups, who were followed for six to 12 years, the death rate in nut-eaters was 17% lower.  This is a fairly large sample group, so these results are rather impressive.  However, the correlation between mortality and peanuts was with whole legumes, not commercial sweetened peanut butter spread.  Adding sugar, hydrogenated oil and preservatives to peanuts may cancel out any health benefits.  Also, if we are to use the “Do umbrellas make it rain?” logic argument, those who eat whole peanuts may have better dietary habits overall than those who eat peanut butter – meaning that unprocessed peanut consumption is a marker of dietary quality, not the specific cause of lower mortality.

Regardless, peanuts are, as a whole food, quite nutritionally sound:

Dry Roasted, Salted Peanuts (1 oz.)
% Daily Value
Nutrients
Amount
n/a
Calories
166.0
13%
Protein
6.7 g
2%
Total Carbohydrate
6.1 g
9%
Dietary Fiber
2.3 g
22%
Total Fat
14.1 g
10%
Saturated Fat
2.0 g
n/a
Monounsaturated Fat
7.0 g
n/a
Polyunsaturated Fat
4.5 g
n/a
Omega 6 fatty acid
4.5 g
n/a
Omega 3 fatty acid
trace
16%
Vitamin E
2.2 mg AT
10%
Folate
41.1 mcg
19%
Niacin
3.8 mg
8%
Thiamin
0.12 mg
16%
Riboflavin
0.03 mg
n/a
Pantothenic acid
0.39 mg
4%
Vitamin B6
0.07 mg
6%
Zinc
0.94 mg
9%
Copper
0.19 mg
3%
Selenium
2.13 mcg
13%
Magnesium
50 mg
10%
Phosphorus
101 mg
5%
Potassium
187 mg
2%
Calcium
15 mg
10%
Sodium
230 mg
4%
Iron
0.64 mg
0%
Cholesterol
0.0 mg
n/a
Resveratrol
present
n/a
Arginine
0.8g
n/a
Total Phytosterols
62.4 mg
n/a
Beta-sitosterol*
18.4 mg

Shown are values for dry roasted and salted peanuts, since these are most likely what someone would eat as part of a normal diet.  What stands out to me among the macronutrients (carbohydrate, fat, protein) is the protein to weight ratio – one ounce contains almost 7 grams.  That is, by weight, equal in protein content to roasted dark meat chicken, higher than steamed cod and double that of dry soybeans.  Of course, one must take into account the amino acid quality of the protein.  The amino acid profile of peanuts is incomplete, lacking the essential amino acid L-methionine.  Other than this, though, the only 0% or 0.0mg shown in the chart above is for cholesterol.  The amount of vitamins and minerals contained in peanuts is rather impressive.  Also of note is the relatively high fat content.  This is a good thing, as many of the vitamins contained therein are fat soluble.

A flavonoid rich snack combination of black coffee and peanuts

What other benefits do peanuts possess?  One clue to health beyond vitamins and protein lies in their unique taste and reddish skins.  Flavonoids are natural compounds from plants which play an important role in plant defense systems, acting as natural pesticides.  Consumption of flavonoids by people has beneficial effects to human health due to their antioxidant, antiestrogenic and antiproliferative activities.  Peanut skin contains significant polyphenol content, as well as quercetin, resveratrol and phytosterols.  These are the same disease fighting substances pointed to in studies on red wine, chocolate and coffee.  It may be the lack of peanut skins in peanut butter that reduces its health boosting effects, since most of these flavonoids are found in the thin, papery red skins.  Therefore, to reap the greatest benefits of this excellent legume, whole and unprocessed is best.

RECIPE

I find that peanuts work amazingly well in savory applications, as does most of the rest of the world, as the far greater number of savory recipes than sweet ones indicates.  Here is my adaptation of a traditional West African peanut soup recipe, Domodah or Maafe, depending on which language one refers to, that utilizes hand-ground peanuts to thicken the soup and add rich flavor.  While many Western or European adaptations of this dish tend to add an abundance of spices and aromatics like ginger, allspice, cinnamon, cloves and cumin, I found that the recipes of home cooks actually from West Africa (Benin, Mali, Ghana, etc.) did not include them.  Instead, genuine from-the-source recipes were rather simple, including only salt, pepper, lemons or limes and perhaps a bay leaf to accentuate the flavor of the main ingredients.

This is certainly one of those dishes where everyone’s mother has their own version, passed down through generations, so it allows incredible flexibility in interpretation.  A few components remain vital: ground peanuts, a sweet and hearty vegetable such as carrot or pumpkin, tomato and some sort of sour contributor like citrus juice.  Some recipes even call for several whole lemons, uncut, to be stewed along with everything to incorporate an aromatic sour bitterness.  I have substituted this with a preserved lemon, which I feel adds that same kind of flavor profile in a more mellow way.   Feel free to add as many different vegetables as you like – collard or mustard greens, peas, potatoes, corn, carrots, chili peppers and summer squash are not unheard of additions.

Domodah or Maafe - West African Peanut Stew

This is a simple yet flavorful stew utilizing hand-ground peanuts to thicken and add flavor.  It can easily be made without meat for a vegan version.  Add whatever vegetables you like best, though make sure they can stand up to a longer cooking time.

Prep Time 20 minutes
Cook Time 1 hour
Total Time 1 hour 20 minutes
Servings 4

Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 lbs beef or lamb stew meat cubed
  • 1 japanese or thai eggplant diced
  • 2 cups dry roasted peanuts unsalted
  • 3 tbsp peanut oil
  • 1 medium onion roughly chopped
  • 2 medium fresh tomatoes roughly chopped
  • 2 tbsp tomato paste
  • 2 cloves garlic crushed
  • 1 preserved lemon chopped fine
  • 1 cup canned pumpkin or diced butternut squash
  • 1 yellow or red bell pepper sliced
  • 1 large sweet potato peeled and cubed
  • 1 tbsp miso paste
  • 1/4 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 4 to 6 cups water or beef stock taste for salt before seasoning if using stock
  • cilantro, green onions and crushed peanuts to garnish
  • cooked rice for serving

Instructions

  1. Dice the eggplant and soak in 6 cups of cold water with 1/4 cup kosher salt while you prepare the other ingredients.  This will draw out tannic, bitter brown liquid from the eggplant.  Peeling is optional.

  2. Pat the meat dry with a paper towel and season generously with salt and pepper.

  3. Heat the peanut oil in a large saucepan or medium soup pot over medium heat.  Brown the meat in batches until well browned but not cooked through; remove from pan and reserve.

  4. Turn the heat down to medium-low.  Add the onion and sweat without browning until translucent. Add the garlic, tomato paste and tomatoes, scraping up the brown bits on the bottom with a spoon.  Simmer for 5 minutes.

  5. While the tomato mixture is simmering, put the peanuts in a mortar and grind until a rough, chunky peanut paste is formed.  Alternately, add the peanuts to a food processor and pulse until a rough paste is formed, but not the consistency of peanut butter - it should be somewhat dry and crumbly.

  6. Rinse and drain the eggplant.  Pat dry with paper towels, squeezing gently to get out most of the liquid.

  7. Add the meat back into the pan.  Add all remaining ingredients and peanut paste (do not add garnish and rice); stir well to combine.  Make sure the meat is covered by about one inch of liquid.

  8. Simmer uncovered for at least one hour, stirring occasionally, until the meat is fork tender.  If the stew starts to look dry, add a little water.  Stew should be rather thick when done, with the vegetables well cooked and nearly pureed.  Serve ladled over rice and garnish with cilantro, green onion and crushed peanuts.

Recipe Notes

  • If you would like the vegetables to have a little more body when the stew is done, add them after the meat has been simmering for 30 minutes.  Cook for remaining 30 minutes until meat is tender.
  • As with all stews, this tastes better the next day.
  • Sumbala is a fermented paste of néré (Parkia biglobosa) seeds.  It has a unique salty fermented flavor, but can be difficult to find outside of ordering online.  Miso is arguably less complex but contributes a similar umami, salty flavor.
  • Traditionally, the eggplant would instead be bitter tomato (Solanum aethiopicum).
  • Watch the saltiness level - miso, stock and preserved lemons all add a decent amount by themselves.

 

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