First domesticated several thousand years ago, probably in present day Argentina or Bolivia, the peanut is now eaten worldwide. Upon reaching the shores of Mesoamerica in the early 16th century, Spanish colonisers discovered the peanut plant (or tlalcacahuatl in the local Nahuatl language), where it had spread from South America and was widely cultivated for consumption by the native population. The plant was brought back to Europe, and a global trade began.
Today, the peanut is agricultural mainstay in much of Asia, Africa, and North America, and is consumed virtually everywhere else. Peanuts, actually legumes related to peas and beans rather than true nuts, grow underground and can be ground into pastes, butters, oils and flours, boiled, dry-roasted or fried. In North America, peanuts are most often eaten as snacks or used in sweet dishes, added to cookies, cakes and, candies. They feature strongly in Southeast Asian cuisine, most famously combined with soy and spices to form the base of satay sauce. In Israel, crunchy coated peanuts—or kabukim in Hebrew—are sold as a popular snack food, as are bamba puffs (think Wotsits, but peanut-flavoured).
Peruvian cuisine, celebrated for its combination of indigenous, European and Asian ingredients and flavours, makes particularly wide use of peanuts. One traditional (and somewhat infamous) dish, picante de cuy, consists of roasted guinea pig served in a sauce of ground peanuts, onions and garlic. Another dish, originating in the nation’s second city, Arequipa, is ocopa, a smooth, vividly green sauce made from peanuts blended with hot chilli peppers, fresh cheese and huacatay, an Andean herb also known as black mint. It is great served over boiled potatoes and boiled eggs and garnished with olives and parsley – recipe here.
Having never cooked with actual peanuts before, for Becky’s birthday last year we decided to try a recipe for a special (unashamedly unhealthy) stir fry featured in Ruby Tandoh’s excellent book Flavour (available at all good bookshops). A sauce is prepared by heating sesame oil in a pan, pressing in copious amounts of crushed garlic and chopped chilli, then adding fresh ginger, honey, lime juice, coconut milk, soy sauce and crunchy peanut butter. The resultant sauce, spicy, sweet and salty, is then added to stir-fried carrots and (par-boiled) broccoli – though any veg would work (we added peppers too) – and served with rice and more peanuts sprinkled on top. A triumph!