We’ve talked about the history of beans in pre-Colombian Mexico. The Phaseolus vulgaris, or common bean, dates back as early as 7000 BC and it’s native to the American continent. Many varieties have been cultivated in what is now the U.S., Peru, and Mexico. However, evidence suggests that Mexico is the origin of the five most cultivated varieties in the continent: P. vulgaris, common bean; P. acutifolius, tepari bean; P. lunatus, Lima bean; P. coccineus, scarlet bean; and P. polyanthus, annual bean.
Like maize, beans were an important part in the diet of pre-Colombian civilizations. The Aztecs, for example, included beans in the list of tributes that their vessel states had to pay. Bernardino de Sahagun, a Spanish friar, documented the use of beans in the Aztec empire. In one of his observations he mentioned that the native people ate tamales that were mixed with beans. Another important aspect of beans and maize that was noted by Sahagun was the storing and administration of these crops and the capacity the indigenous people had to foresee and prepare for possible times of shortage. Sahagun writes:
Another wing of the palace was called petlacalco. In this place there was a steward of the lord, that was in charge of the preservation and accounting of the maize that was store for the supply of the city and the republic, with capacity of two thousand bushels of maize. There was maize twenty years old with no signs of damage. There were other wings with big quantities of beans.
Beans and maize were some of the most important crops for sale at the local markets because they could be used as currency. Their value was based on the physical appearance of the product (color and size). Sahagun also noted:
The bean seller, he is a good handler of them, he sells all different varieties and he appreciates them according to their value and without deception. The beans he sells are new, clean, fat and not damaged, like gemstones they can be store in the coffers or granaries, such as yellow, red, white and small beans, and the ones flecked with different colors.
These observations are evidence of the importance of beans in the Aztec empire and other civilizations of pre-Colombian Mexico. Beans are still very important in Mexico. The country is the fifth producer of these legumes. It is also among the thirteen countries with the largest consumption of beans in the world. Studies show that developing countries consume larger quantities of beans because they’re a cheap source of protein and fiber. But production and consumption of beans in Mexico will be the topic of a future post.
Right now I want to share a recipe that I came out with using arborio rice (not exactly a Mexican ingredient, but one of my favorites) and ayocote, or scarlet runner, beans that I picked up last week when we went to the ice cream fair in Tulyehualco. Since the moment I saw them I fell in love with their color and size. However, the best part was when I finally could taste them.
I read online that many people cultivate them only for decorative purposes, but their taste is so unique that I wouldn’t be able now to have them as decoration without thinking about cooking them. The flavor is a mix between a chickpea and a fava bean. If you can find them where you live, I strongly recommend buying a batch. Rancho gordo sells the black variety, they may be similar in flavor.
- •1 cup arborio rice
- •2 TBSP olive oil
- •1/4 onion, chopped
- •1 or 2 garlic cloves, minced
- •3 cups warm chicken or vegetable broth
- •1/2 cup button mushrooms, sliced
- •1/4 cup peas
- •1½ cups scarlet or black runner beans, cooked and drained
- •100 grs fresh zucchini or squash blossoms
- •salt and pepper to taste
- Heat up olive oil in a large iron-cast skillet. Sautee onion and when it becomes translucent add garlic.
- Stir in the arborio rice and let it fry for about 4 to 5 minutes or until it starts to smell nutty.
- Reduce heat to low.
- Add one cup of chicken broth and stir constantly until the broth is absorbed. Repeat with a second cup of broth.
- Add the third cup of broth to the rice and mix in the peas, beans and mushrooms.
- Season to taste if necessary.
- When the last cup of broth is halfway absorbed mix in the squash blossoms. Turn off the heat and cover.
- After 3 or 4 minutes uncover and serve.