Meet the Fabaceae family. A close-knit bunch of all shapes and sizes, the Fabaceaes are full of energy with a few colourful characters in their age-old lineage. No, it’s not the new family moving in down the road, but a group of pod-producing plants also known as legumes, beans or peas. They are indeed a diverse clan, encompassing tiny grains of quinoa and 5-foot long E.gigas (entada gigas), vibrant green beans and earth-coloured peanuts. Dating back to ancient times, Fabaceae have witnessed almost every time-period and have humbly served pilgrims, farmers and traders alike.
It is probably surprising to know that peanuts, lentils, quinoa and snow peas all belong to the same family, but what is more remarkable are the varied benefits of these Fabaceae offspring. They play an ever-evolving role in global cuisine and perform an important part in our daily diets.
Dried beans, quinoa, lentils, and chickpeas are nutrient goldmines. They contain high proteins, fibres and essential vitamins with only small traces of fat. Easy to store and transport once dried, they have the added advantage of a long shelf life. Although uninspiring to the eye, they play a crucial part in the fight against famine in developing countries and are prized by UNESCO and the World Food Bank.
On another branch of the Fabaceae family tree sits the humble peanut – but don’t be deceived! This is practically a homegrown powerhouse with all kinds of potential. Like other legumes, peanuts grow on a vine, but their point of difference is that the pods develop underground in a woody shell usually containing two peanuts. Peanut vines act like multivitamins for the soil, restoring depleted and infertile ground with essential nutrients. This amazing benefit was discovered after the Civil war in America when thousands of emancipated slaves turned to sharecropping. Producing crops in ground sorely depleted from generations of cotton farming had poor results until an inventive farmer and former slave discovered the perks of crop-rotation with the nutrient-packed peanuts. Well adapted to the climate and prolific even in poor soil conditions, peanut plantations thrived and are still a considerable part of modern-day America’s agricultural economy.
As already mentioned, the elder members of the Fabaceae family have been around since days of old, used both as currency and a food source (possibly even constituting the original form of trail mix to keep camel drivers awake on the long trade-routes across the ancient world). Several thousands of years later they still appeared to be a vital provision for travellers, with beans making up a large part of the pilgrim diet, particularly on the long ocean voyages to the new world.
Despite the Fabaceae family’s long-serving history, they took a back seat as processed foods grew in popularity and we in the Western world craved the new and different. Pulse was out, and processed was in. Patiently, they waited in the wings until we grew tired of saturated fats and sodium-laden dinners and, thanks to the focus on health and wellness, they are once again in the spotlight. Now classed as a superfood, they have upped their profile to feature in salads, soups, dips and desserts and we hope they are here to stay.
Welcome back, Fabaceaes!