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Image: Archi Banal
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KaiMay 5, 2023

Ingredient of the week: Peanuts

Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

Peanut products come in many shapes and forms, but they all have one thing in common: deliciousness. 

The peanut, aka the groundnut, goober, or monkey nut, has a big secret: it’s not a nut at all. Peanuts are legumes, like lentils and peas, but even stranger, because they’re grown underground. I’ll get to the “underground” bit in a moment, but first, a brief peanut history lesson.

Native to Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, and Brazil, the peanut has been happily munched upon for at least 7,600 years. Aztec and Inca civilisations even ground roasted peanuts into a paste – clearly, peanuts were always meant to be butter. Later, peanuts were spread around the world by Europeans, and they became an important crop in Asia and Africa.

In the South American country of Suriname, by 1870, a dish called pinda-dokkunnu (“peanut cheese”) was made – think a more solid peanut butter, served in slices like cheese. Despite a long history of peanuts being crushed to a paste, it wasn’t until 1884 that Canadian chemist Marcellus Gilmore Edson obtained the first patent for producing peanut butter from roasted peanuts. 

Delightfully, Edson’s peanut butter patent application describes the product as having, “a consistency like that of butter, lard, or ointment”. Mmm, ointment!

As well as their lovely ointment-like texture when ground, peanuts are also a nutritional firecracker – unless, of course, you have a peanut allergy. A 100g serving of peanuts contains 25g of protein, 570 calories, and a good chunk of the B vitamins, vitamin E, manganese, magnesium, phosphorus, and fibre you need for the day. 

Now, peanuts aren’t just for sprinkling on a banana split or smearing on a quick piece of toast. No stranger to industry, peanut oil is an ingredient in paint, furniture polish, insecticides, pharmaceutical drug nitroglycerin, soap, and cosmetics, while peanut shells are used to make products including plastic, glue, paper, and fuel. Multi-talented, you could say.

How peanuts are grown

Peanut growing is undoubtedly weird, so to get my head around the process, I got some insights from a verified peanut expert: Aimee McCammon, CEO at Pic’s Peanut Butter. Pic’s is coming into the third year of a trial growing peanuts in Te Tai Tokerau, Northland, so they have the first hand, green fingers experience.

Aimee explained that what we eat is the peanut seed. If you have a raw peanut with its papery reddish seed coat still intact, you can plant it in soil and grow a new peanut plant – a small, bushy being. After three or four months, the peanut plant develops yellow flowers, which only last for a day before dying and drooping downward. 

Two people crouch in between rows of green peanut plants. A black dog stands to their right.
Pic Picot (right) with Plant & Food’s Declan Graham at one of the trial peanut farms in Northland (Photo: Supplied)

From the dead flower emerges a stalk called the “peanut peg” (stick with me here) which grows downward and buries itself in the soil. From the buried end of the peanut peg, a new peanut shell forms, housing between one and four peanuts. This process is called geocarpy, a very rare method of plant reproduction – peanuts are the poster child for this unusual style of bearing fruit.

To harvest the peanuts, first the plant dies (a lot of death-brings-new-life going on here), and it’s then pulled from the soil, peanuts dangling in the roots like very dirty, high-nutrient gold. 

Where to find peanuts

Peanuts are pretty affordable, even in these mad times. You can buy peanuts in many forms (natural, with their red papery skin intact; blanched; roasted and salted; honied; spiced), so to keep things fair, I’m just comparing the cheapest biggish salted and roasted bag available.

At both New World and Pak’nSave, it’s $3.79 for a 400g bag of roasted peanuts, and at Countdown there’s a 500g bag for $4.40. Supie’s best option is Eta 200g for $2.90.

Peanut butter, I think, deserves a price check too. At Countdown, a standard 380g jar of Pic’s is $6.90 – although it was on special for $6 this week when I had a look. At Pak’nSave, the very same jar is $6.49, but amazingly, it’s New World that’s the winner – their Pic’s is a humble $6.29. Supie doesn’t currently stock Pic’s, but their standard 375g jars of Fix & Fogg is $6.

Two plates of rice topped with satay chicken. Each is served with green beans and brocolli. The plates are served on a dark purple tablecloth.
Thai-style satay chicken on rice. (Image: Wyoming Paul)

How to make peanuts amazing

There are endless meals, snacks, and chocolatey confectioneries made with peanuts, as is made very clear by the fact that George Washington Carver (often falsely referred to as the inventor of peanut butter) published a 1916 document titled “How to Grow the Peanut and 105 Ways of Preparing it For Human Consumption”.

As I have no desire to list 105 ways to prepare peanuts, and I imagine you have no desire to read them, here are some honourable mentions. Peanut butter cookies (yum), chopped roasted peanuts sprinkled over a banana split (double yum), ants on a log (the only way to entice a child or anyone else to eat raw celery), chikki (a traditional Indian sweet made from peanuts and jaggery), peanut brittle (a sweet to break your teeth on), peanut butter whiskey (I’m full of questions), and of course peanut butter chocolate in its dozens of forms.

Two bowls of peanut noodles topped with golden tofu and florets of broccoli.
Peanut noodles with crispy ginger tofu. (Image: Wyoming Paul)

The best, in my very humble opinion, is satay sauce. It must be, since it’s widely used in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, China, Suriname and Africa, across a wide range of dishes. My go-to is Thai-style satay chicken on rice, served with steamed greens. Saucy, rich, salty, a little sweet – a meal of pure satisfaction. Another winner based on the gloriousness of satay are these peanut noodles with crispy ginger tofu

But it isn’t all about me. I asked Pic’s CEO Aimee about her favourite peanut butter snack, and she came back with this intriguing dessert combo: warmed Pic’s Smooth Peanut Butter over hokey pokey ice cream.

Wyoming Paul is the co-founder of Grossr, and runs a weekly meal plan that connects to online supermarket shopping.

Read all the previous Ingredients of the Week here.

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