Beans are intricately woven into the culture of nearly every country across the world. That’s a large part of why beans have been such a vital ingredient in the cuisine of many cultures for thousands of years. Better yet, beans add flavor, texture and nutrients to dishes, making them an ideal ingredient for meat-eaters, vegetarians and vegans alike.
In addition to protein and fiber, beans add flavor and texture that vary from neutral and firm to distinct and creamy. From ancient Mexico to modern-day America, beans play a pivotal role in nourishing our bodies. You might be surprised to learn that the story of how beans are used varies from country to country.
America’s best bean dishes
Anyone who has ever tucked into a tangy, sweet dish or Boston baked beans or zesty, spicy New Orleans red beans and rice can thank the indigenous people who were here long before European explorers and settlers came to the “New World.” Beans were highly prized among Native American staples, often baked into cornbread or paired with corn kernels to make a dish that’s eaten to this day — succotash.
Perhaps no American bean dish highlights regional flavors as well as cowboy beans, a southwestern specialty heralded by The Bean Institute. Flavored with smoky bacon, fragrant onion and garlic, green peppers and rich molasses, this chuck-wagon dinner remains popular. Cowboys love pairing it with a sizzling steak and an ice-cold pint.
Italy’s good luck talisman
At one time, fava beans were the only beans you’d find in Italy. Inquisitive visitors will discover that fava beans were once the only crop that survived a total loss in Sicily. The beans prevented Sicilian starvation that year. Grateful residents gave thanks to Saint Joseph, and fava beans became a traditional decoration on St. Joseph’s Day. Even today, fava beans are viewed as symbols of good luck. They’re often eaten fresh and tossed with some Pecorino Romano. Italians also shell them to add to soups, pasta dishes, and more.
On any Italian vacation, visitors can find beans in a surprising number of dishes. One of the best non-fava bean dishes is perhaps the pasta e ceci, a pasta tossed with chickpeas simmered with slightly sweet San Marzano tomatoes, aromatic onion and garlic, and a few bay leaves.
Dry edible beans like cranberry and lima beans likely originated in Mexico or Peru. Archaeologists estimate that legumes were growing here at least 7,000 years ago. They were a valuable commodity throughout much of Mexico’s history. The Aztecs frequently used them as payment. And for good reason. Legumes were and are an excellent resource in the battle against food scarcity. They provide hearty texture, and they’re a good source of protein. They were also an important staple throughout winter months.
While those unfamiliar with Mexico’s beans may be most familiar with black and pinto beans, there are hundreds of varieties grown here. Flor de mayo beans add a subtle sweetness to a pot of beans, and heirloom varieties like Rio Zape beans add punches of unexpected flavors like coffee and chocolate to a dish.
Mexico is also credited with introducing the world to the wonderful world of cocoa. Aztecs used prized cacao beans as money. But the practice of transforming cacao into cocoa dates as far back as 1500 BC. The Olmecs started growing cocoa, a practice that spread over centuries to the Mayans, the Aztecs, and beyond.
Asia’s sweet and savory ingredient
Asian cuisine is as varied as the cultures that make up the region. Although you might find beans sporadically in different Asian foods, Indian fare really celebrates them. In India, beans play a starring role in everything from fillings to sauces to flours. Dal, a lentil stew, simmers pillowy lentils with fragrant spices like ginger and garam masala, producing a feast for the senses and hearty nutrition for India’s many vegetarians. In China, beans are sometimes used in desserts like sweet red bean soup or mooncakes — small cakes with a red or black bean filling.
Sweet or spicy, beans hold a distinct honor as part of the cuisine and culture of countries the world over. The story behind this versatile ingredient is more than just a culinary one. They’re also a vital part of many economies. America is the global leader in producing dry edible beans, with more than 1.5 million acres devoted to these delicious crops.