Firstly, peanuts are not actually a nut. They are a legume, just like a lentil, a bean or a pea. Out of their shell and toasted, of course, they more closely resemble a hazelnut than a broad bean, but they are definitely not nuts. The fruits of the plant mature underground (hence the American name groundnut) not on branches above the ground.
Peanuts are both demonised and adored in equal measure. Well, actually they are only disliked by a small number of people, and with good reason. Peanuts can cause anaphylactic shock in people allergic to them, and have caused deaths. What is surprising is that whilst some people in the Western world have grown allergic to them, it is almost unheard of in other countries in South-East Asia, China, Africa and India. A lot of research is currently being carried out to understand why this is. But it does pay to note, that if you are allergic to peanuts you may not necessarily be allergic to real nuts.
Peanuts seem an essential part of the Western diet, from eating a packet of them at a pub or on a train (in the old days you’d be offered them on flights but airlines have withdrawn them due to allergen concerns), through to peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and the lovely salted peanut candies in America. In Indonesia and Malaysia, satay sauce is one of the culinary highlights, and it would be impossible to think of Thai cuisine without the use of peanuts in various curry pastes or toasted and tossed through salads. However, like chillies and coriander, ingredients we closely associate with South-East Asian food, peanuts did not come from Asia. They came from South America, most likely from Peru. As with chillies and tomatoes, they made their way north and south through the Americas, wherever the climate allowed them to grow. It may seem odd that their arrival in North America, home of peanut butter, was by way of Africa. The Portuguese who had settled in Brazil had become fond of them and took them into Africa where they were grown and eaten extensively. From Africa they made their way back to North America. It was also the Portuguese that introduced them to China in the 1600s - currently the world’s largest grower of this crop.
Whilst we most often eat them roasted, in some parts of the world boiled or steamed peanuts are more the norm. I can remember eating banana-leaf cones of steamed nuts throughout Indonesia when I was travelling there in 1985. When I travelled to the Guangdong region of China to film a TV show in 2005, I was surprised at how often they appeared in dishes from the region, most often boiled. In India, the second-largest growing nation, I barely recall them, but that’s likely because they are grown more for their oil than for the actual peanut itself. Peanut oil is a wonderful oil to cook with as it has an almost neutral flavour and a high burning point (which means you can cook over a high heat successfully), but in the restaurants I’ve run I avoid using it due to the possible effect it might have on a customer allergic to peanuts.
I love the savoury flavour of peanuts, and like to boil them for 12 minutes before draining and cooling them, then frying in peanut oil until pale golden. This is my preferred toasting method - although you can, of course, also simply toast them in the oven. Also, we sometimes boil them with sugar and chillies for 20 minutes before draining them and tossing them whilst still a little damp and warm in caster sugar and leaving them to dry completely. Deep-fried they become the perfect sweet and savoury snack, or toss them through a salad of green mango, toasted coconut, avocado, smoked eel and lime juice and you are onto a winner. Lightly toast them then pureée in a food processor with a little tahini to make a wonderful peanut butter. Or toast in the oven, finely grind them and add to a plain ice cream base and leave to infuse overnight. Next day strain out and churn - and serve with a berry compote and biscotti - better in my mind than peanut butter and jelly sandwiches!
© 2010 Peter Gordon. All rights reserved.