Bean-counters' pulses are racing

Beans
December 7, 2007

This is a "foodie" and historical book, not an agricultural one, but it is one that will be of interest to toxicologists, phytochemists and possibly even sexologists.

Of chickpeas, according to Eobanus Hessus after Galen, "they restore the exhausted genital member with semen nor do they permit disservice to Venus". In contrast, eating Phytostigma venenosum is the West African version of playing Russian roulette.

This book is a great read, full of exotic and intriguing information and thoroughly recommended. It is scholarly in style, but lacks footnotes to save space and eases the read for non-scholars.

Ken Albala takes a very broad view of which plants comprise "beans". That is no hardship or discredit. Most readers of such books would probably take the same view. The book addresses lentils; lupins (which as an American he calls lupines); fava beans (horse beans or "great garden" or later broad beans to the British); peas, chickpeas and pigeon peas, all of these three lumped incongruously together in one chapter; Indian mung, green grams (urds or urads) and other small-seeded Vignas, moth beans, rice beans and adzukis; African and Southern US black-eyed peas. Then we have the true Phaseolus species of the New World: that is, of vulgaris, coccineus (multiflorus), lunatus and acutifolius, which are respectively common or French beans, runner beans and the large-seeded white pulse types - North American Aroostook and Barteldes, French soissons, South African bomba (although all of these are overlooked by Abala) and Spanish Judia de la Granja and Greek gigantes; Lima and butter beans and Tepary beans.

In addition to the relatively well-known and widely used bean species of human food, Albala also includes a chapter on what he calls "Oddballs and villains", which from time to time and place to place are consumed, from famine or survival foods to ordeal poisons. Here, he covers a range of 31 leguminous genera and species in the space of 15 particularly lively pages. Of these, the oddballs mostly come from herbaceous plants, although the tonka bean, Dipteryx odorata , comes from a hardwood tree. Its only known consumed use is in voodoo love spells, and its use in food as an adulterating flavour ingredient is banned in the US.

The soybean, or soya bean in English-speak, gets a chapter despite its being mainly an industrial oilseed and source of protein for livestock feed. Soy is also a big enough subject to need a book on its own. Including soya beans in this book, Albala takes the story just for this one bean right up to 2006 in an attempt to weigh up arguments on genetic modification and to introduce the question of trans fats. These are modern distractions from the much deeper historical and literary approach that characterises the rest of the book. It is a regrettable move that suggests a desire to engage readers in the US, where so many Midwesterners assume that "beans" means soya.

The book adequately covers the important traditional East Asian conversion of soya to tofu, miso and tempeh. However, there is no place for the use of quick-boiled or steamed and then fried fresh pods of the large-podded types of soya in northern Japan that yields a succulent green bean that can be sucked from the pod. The Northern Japanese and Sakhalin use of soya pods was also what prompted the introduction and breeding of soya beans to Sweden at Fiskeby by Sven Holmberg, which is sadly overlooked.

Some northern Japanese varieties (such as Early Hakucho) are genetically persistently green-seeded. That use of the genetic trait of non- destruction of chlorophyll during seed maturation could have introduced discussion of an interesting evolutionary parallel with the green-seeded flageolet vert beans of Phaseolus vulgaris of France, the treatment of which is seriously inadequate in relation to their importance and history.

" Phaseolus vulgaris : Mexico and the world" occupies by far the largest chapter of 65 pages. These varieties comprise the field beans or common beans of the US, frijoles of Mexico, alubias of Brazil, porotos of Peru and haricot, kidney and French beans of many English-speaking areas and many more names besides. Here, Albala notes: "This species has done a better job than perhaps any other plant at insinuating itself around the globe in the place of indigenous species. Moreover, these beans come in so many shapes and colours, are so infinitely adaptable and versatile that we rarely think of them as manifestations of a single ancestral progenitor. In many respects, Phaseolus is most like our own species - spread around the globe in every imaginable climate."

One could pick a few nits here, and naturally there are some omissions, but Albala's account generally does them proud.

Colin L. A. Leakey is chairman of a small research and development company, Peas and Beans Ltd, and a natural resources consultant. He has carried out research on Phaseolus beans since 1961.

Beans: A History

Author - Ken Albala
Publisher - Berg
Pages - 256
Price - £14.99
ISBN - 9781845204303

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