The humble peanut and its many avatars

24 Nov, 2007, 0457 hrs IST,Vikram Doctor, TN

Peanuts are known in Mumbai’s trains as ‘time-pass’. There is a certain submissiveness in the phrase — like the small nuts are fine to munch to ease a boring commute, but of little importance otherwise. And that is, in general, how we treat peanuts — we’ll munch them on trains, on the beach, surreptitiously in class, thirstily as we wait for our drinks in a bar or convivially with friends after the drinks arrive. We’ll have them raw, roasted, covered in masala, lightly fried with onions and chillies or covered with spicy besan and deep-fried. But they are always time-pass, never to be considered for a serious meal.

And yet peanuts are a very serious crop in India. Production has declined a bit in recent years, yet at just below 5 million tonnes we are probably the largest producer in the world, and most of this is for domestic consumption. With so much mungphali at our disposal one would have thought that we would have many uses for them. And yet almost 95% of this production goes into making groundnut oil. Most of what’s left is turned into ‘time-pass’. Only a very minuscule amount goes into other dishes.

Gujaratis use raw peanuts in a characteristic dhal, and the smooth and nicely flavoured nut — a bit like a more interesting pea — occasionally crops up in other cuisines. I think Madhur Jaffrey has a recipe for spinach with raw peanuts from Bengal, and in Lord Krishna’s Cuisine, Yamuna Devi has a memorable recipe for a peanut chutney which she encountered when, with her guru Srila Prabhupada of ISKCON, she visited a vast peanut growing estate near Indore.

She describes how a cup of chopped raw peanuts, which must have been at their best, fresh from the fields, was briefly roasted in a teaspoon of peanut oil, to which first two teaspoons of coriander seeds were added, then a few chillies and one third of a cup of shredded coconut. After this turned brown, it was ground to a paste along with some tamarind puree, salt and jaggery. I haven’t tried this, but her recipes are reliable, so it should be pretty good.

McGee notes that peanuts contain some several hundred volatile compounds that on roasting convert to sulphurs and ‘nutty’ pyrazines that account for the intense taste of the roasted nuts. This is what makes them appealing as full-flavored snacks, yet I think this is also what restricts their wider use. We have no equivalent of the African dishes of chickens cooked in peanut paste, and even in Maharashtrian kande-poha the peanuts serve as flavor accents rather than the dominant taste.

We are OK with using peanuts in chutneys, like the one described above, but even here we use it far less than in southeast Asia where peanut sauce is the standard accompaniment for satays. Usha Prabakaran nails it in Usha’s Pickle Digest, her magisterial compendium of 1000 pickle recipes. She duly gives several recipes for peanut pickles (the sour raw peanuts and green coriander sounds particularly good), but then notes “they have a rather dominant flavor which limits their use in pickles.”

There is a parallel here, I think, with chillies, another plant of South American origin that has been hugely adopted in India, and yet remains limited in its use. In India, by and large, we use chillies for one reason only, to add spicy heat to our dishes, ignoring all the subtle varieties and uses to which they are put in South American cuisines like in Mexico. Like chillies peanuts probably came to India with the Portuguese, via Brazil, though like chillies again there is confusion about the exact route they took.

Posted in Articles on Diet.