Not Nuts (The Natural History and Far-Flung Adventures of the Lowly Peanut)

Summer, the season of re-runs.

Since I’m basically a Southern girl, packing 26 years of Southern living under my belt, I wrote about peanuts two years ago. Yep, I’m coming up on two whole years of continuous blogging, with 622 posts!  So I thought I’d do like Gourmet magazine used to do (but not  biting the dust, giving up the ghost, or kicking the bucket) and pick out (and upgrade) some of my favorite past posts in a sort of anniversary “issue.” But I’d mostly like to thank all of you for stopping by, reading, and commenting on “Gherkins & Tomatoes.” I’ve made a big sweating pitcher of sweet  ice tea, just in case this summer’s heat’s getting to you. Grab a glass and sit right down here on the porch and enjoy the view.

And here we go, the first in the series:

A nguba is an arachide is a cacahuete. Or Gedda, French, and Spanish for “pea‑nut,” if you prefer. Arachis hypogaea looks like a nut, tastes like a nut, but is actually not a nut at all. More like a legume or bean. The name “groundnut” tries to get the thing situated correctly but even that is incorrect. Botanically, peanuts belong to the beans/legumes clan and are NOT nuts. Gastronomically, peanuts can’t compete with those culinary wunderkind, caviar or truffles. But peanuts don’t aspire to knighthood or a title. In the U.S., peanuts usually take the form of peanut butter or salty snacks. However, peanuts have both an ancient history and a tremendous potential in the cookpot, nobility or not.

Originating in the foothills of the Bolivian Andes, the peanut is yet another food gift from the New World to the Old. Meandering through the mountain valleys and 13,000 foot passes, the peanut arrived in Mexico, where the Aztecs tongue‑twistingly named it tlalcacahuatl. After 1519, Spanish explorers took this curiosity back with them to Spain, from whence it spread throughout the world. In Africa, parts of Asia, and the American South, the peanut reached its true potential.

George Washington Carver

Resembling a native African bean, the bambara ground nut (Voandzeia subterranea), the American peanut ironically rose to esteem under humble circumstances. African slaves stored bambara ground nut stew recipes in their minds and probably dreamt of bubbling stew pots as they crossed the tossing Atlantic, confined in the holds of slave ships. Imagine their joy in finding the peanut, which reminded them of home.

At the same time, but a world away, the Portuguese introduced the peanut to West Africa and Asia. Africans invented peanut brittle and kulikuli (or fried peanut balls). The Chinese and the Indonesians in particular utilized the peanut in unforgettable sauces — I challenge anyone not to like Chicken or Beef or Pork Satay, swathed in thick, clingy peanut sauce.

If peanut butter sandwiches bore you, or you turn your nose up at dry‑roasted peanuts, try the following variations on a theme. Discover the versatility of the not‑nut for yourself.


Peanuts contain approximately 45‑50% of their mass as oil, with another 27‑33% as protein. B‑vitamins are also found in peanuts. In developing countries, where diets are often deficient in fats, peanuts are an extremely important menu item. For children in the developing world, whose small stomachs cannot take in the necessary number of calories from bulky carbohydrate‑based diets, oil‑rich peanuts are an especially important source of calories. (One and a half pounds of unshelled peanuts will yield a pound of shelled peanuts.)


Serves 4-6

2 pounds boneless pork, cut into bite‑size pieces

4 T. peanut oil

1 cup ground peanuts (unsalted, if possible)

4 T. soy sauce

1/4 t. (or to taste) cayenne or red pepper flakes

Over medium‑high heat, fry the pork in batches in the oil. Add the peanuts, soy sauce, and hot pepper. Cover the pan, reduce the heat to simmer, and cook pork for about 45 minutes. Stir pork often. It may be necessary to add a little water from time to time to prevent sticking.

Serve pork with rice or Chinese pancakes (roll up meat inside pancakes as for burritos).


Makes approximately 1 ½ cups

4 ounces crunchy peanut butter (preferably homemade)

1/2 of medium onion, grated

1 cup thick coconut milk (canned)

1 T. brown sugar

2 T. soy sauce

1 t. cayenne

1/4 t. grated lemon peel

Pinch curry powder

Salt to taste

In a small saucepan, mix all the ingredients together. Bring mixture to a boil. Add water if necessary to prevent sauce from burning.

Serve with grilled chicken or pork skewers.


Serves 4-6

1 large frying chicken, cut into serving pieces

1/4 cup peanut oil

1 large onion, finely chopped

1/4 cup sweet green pepper, chopped

4 cloves of garlic, mashed

2 medium tomatoes, coarsely chopped

4 T. tomato paste

2 cups chicken broth

1/2 ground coriander

1/4 t. ground ginger

1/2 t. cayenne pepper

1 t. curry powder

1 t. dried thyme leaves

1/2 cup peanut butter

Salt and black pepper to taste

In a large skillet (preferably cast iron), fry the chicken pieces in the oil until browned. Remove chicken to a warm plate and keep warm until needed. Add the onions and the green pepper to the skillet and fry until onions are browned. Stir in the garlic, tomatoes and tomato paste, broth, spices, peanut butter, and black pepper. Stir until well mixed.

Add the reserved chicken and any juices that have collected on the plate. It may be necessary to add water to thin the sauce a little. Cook until chicken is very tender. Add salt if necessary. Serve with rice, sliced bananas, a cucumber salad, and chopped cilantro.

For more on peanuts, see:

In the Shadow of Slavery: Africa’s Botanical Legacy in the Atlantic World (2010), by Judith Ann Carney

Peanuts: The Illustrious History of the Goober Pea (The Food Series) (2006), by Andrew F. Smith

© 2008, 2010 C. Bertelsen

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