Beans (Image: Getty / Tina Tiller)
Beans (Image: Getty / Tina Tiller)

KaiJanuary 20, 2023

Which bean is queen? Beans, ranked

Beans (Image: Getty / Tina Tiller)
Beans (Image: Getty / Tina Tiller)

There are many different kinds of beans, some plainly better to eat than others. But when it comes to ranking them, who do you trust? We put our faith in an eager panel of Brannavan Gnanalingam, Max Rashbrooke and Murdoch Stephens, with ranking assistance from Massoud Hossaini, Alida Mercuri and Keith Ng.

Though recently overshadowed by an insurrection, January 6 is, of course, better known as International Bean Day. Well, we thought: what better moment to amass every available bean variety, and earnestly rank them? The humble bean, dependable yet unsexy, had (we thought) languished too long in obscurity, and deserved the spotlight that only a Spinoff ranking could furnish.

We must, of course, pay tribute to Alice Webb-Liddall for her wide-ranging and imaginative ranking of beans in March 2021. Casting her net so wide as to catch both jellybeans and Sean Bean, Webb-Liddall garnished her reportage with wit and leftfield selections. By contrast we have ranked only those beans that we could, and did, taste. We also deliberately excluded beans both cacao and coffee, since they would all-too-easily win any ranking carried out by a right-thinking person without an obscure allergy.

We wasted little time on the hoary old question of what makes a bean a bean, as opposed to just another legume. Our definition was simple and rigorous: things that were either called beans or definitely were beans, and could be found in the Wellington region with only moderate effort. This pared the world’s 400 or so edible bean varieties down to a manageable 19.

The vast majority of the beans were prepared over 48 hours by Brannavan, who created 16 different dishes, each designed to show the bean in question to its best advantage. So as not to look completely work-shy, Max provided a delightful green bean salad and Murdoch heroically sourced a jar of lupine beans ($4.99 from Middle East Marketplace on Riddiford St). Also assembled in front of a table groaning with beans, and completing the judging panel, were Massoud Hossaini, Alida Mercuri and Keith Ng. Massoud also took the pictures of beans accompanying this article, a task for which he, as a Pulitzer prize-winning Afghan war photographer, was probably over-qualified.

Assembled beans, with Barbie. (Photo: Massoud Hossaini)

Before they began, the judges were asked to lay out any personal biases or conflicts. None declared payments from Big Bean. Murdoch noted his lupine allegiances, Max a green-bean bias, and Brannavan some soya-bean leanings. Keith said he had never cooked beans in their raw form, an admission that was met with scorn. Alida noted an affinity, derived from her Italian heritage, for the cannellini. Massoud described something called a chitti, a small red bean mostly used in soup in Afghanistan, which we didn’t have. 

All beans were ranked out of 10 privately and individually; the results were then tallied to generate vote percentages and rankings. Dissenting opinions were noted. Although the judges will not be entering into any correspondence, irate readers are directed to the fact that the Spinoff is, for better or worse, a member of the Media Council complaints system.

About to embark on a quest for truth, bean rankers Keith Ng and Max Rashbrooke. (Photo: Massoud Hossaini)

19. Alubia (46%)

We thought this might just be the cannellini in disguise, though the internet said no. Someone, probably Alida, called it “a creamier, dumber kidney bean”. It arrived from Argentina via Moore Wilson’s, which raised questions as to whether Wellington’s bougiest supermarket had rebranded them just to sell them to the well-to-do and/or bean completists. But we had enough on our plates, as it were, without getting into such deep questions. We just thought the alubia tasted of mush but that could also have been due to Bran’s exhausted pressure cooker.

18. Navy bean AKA the haricot bean AKA baked beans (58%)

This came served in the traditional sweet tomato sauce, which led to a rowdy discussion about the relative merits of Anglo-American cuisine. The archetypal can of Wattie’s baked beans was invoked, as were schoolyard jokes about flatulence. But while the navy bean would have passed muster in those earlier days, it couldn’t foot it in a world of greater culinary competition. Nostalgia tastes good, but not that good.

Sickly sweet nostalgia on toast. (Photo: Getty Images)

17. Red chauli bean (63%)

This is apparently a red version of the black-eyed pea, but is also known as the cowpea. At least one judge thought it was definitely a lentil, but this theory was rejected. It is a bean, though not an overly popular one. “I’m getting strong Small Bean Energy,” noted one judge.

16. Yellow split pea (66%)

Reactions included “lentils”, “how did they get in?” and “a pulse”. The judges were, in an impossible-to-avoid pun, split on this one. It also sparked memories of some of the worst flatulence one judge had ever suffered or, rather, inflicted.

15. Black bean (69%)

As the last bean to be eaten, its ranking may have suffered due to the amount of food consumed prior. The judges were relatively unmoved by its actual qualities (which Keith described as “pathetic”), and got badly distracted by a discussion about whether settlers in Aotearoa privileged eating meat (over beans) as a way to demonstrate status. One judge suggested the general public’s fancy for the black bean had more to do with its availability coinciding with the rapid expansion of Mexican cuisine into Aotearoa, lending it an undue popularity.

14. Lupine bean (69%)

Bright yellow and extremely crunchy, these were served as a snack in a number of bars in Cairo that Murdoch went to in 2018. Accordingly, his dissenting opinion was that they merited a 9.8 out of 10. Although it must be said that all his judging was on the generous side. As he plaintively asked, “Why would you put a bean down?” The other judges thought it was OK-to-poor.

13. Pinto bean (70%)

Somehow we had forgotten to get these, so we closed our eyes and ranked them from memory. Murdoch’s dissenting opinion was that refried beans are still an underappreciated phenomenon in Aotearoa, and that the pinto should have been ranked higher.

12. Kidney bean (72%)

This was the prog rock of beans: excessive and popular in the 1970s, and making a semi-comeback. Brannavan made the case for a kidney bean curry (although he didn’t actually make a kidney bean curry). A bean that divided opinion.

11. Black-eyed pea (73%)

These were small and punchy, according to Brannavan, and best served in the classic Tex Mex format or, as noted by Massoud, in Persian cuisine.

10. Azuki bean (73%)

Ooh yeah, the red bean that goes in all those Chinese sweet buns and mochi. Brannavan was not 100% sure he had done justice to this bean (he made dhal with it), but it did just sneak into the top ten. Another small bean.

9. Mung bean (74%)

Preceded by a reputation for being overly earnest, it performed better than expected. The judges may have been swayed by its pairing with caramelised carrots. But, as one judge noted, a bean’s ability to carry flavours is a key part of its charm.

The mung is a kind of cultural symbol for all things health-giving but dull. (Photo: Getty images)

8. Moth bean (75%)

Small and piquant, this reminded some of a brown lentil, and, to be honest, probably is a lentil. All praise to Yogiji’s in Petone, for stocking this “bean” that none of us had ever heard of before.

7. Chickpea AKA garbanzo bean (75%)

A versatile favourite for many cuisines, presented in this case as a very simple and delicious hummus. The judges’ relative unanimity reflected the fact that this was a hard bean to dislike: “humble” was the most oft-used adjective.

6. Cannellini bean (77%)

One judge, possibly of a Mediterranean sensibility, ranked it 10 out of 10, leading to suspicions that some were taking advantage of the fact we were scoring the beans using means rather than medians. Another gave it a score of nine, noting: “Salty, nutty, very soft.”

5. Butter bean AKA lima bean (78%)

It was a surprise that arguably the beaniest version of the bean did so well, but it just shows that, sometimes, more is more.

4. Edamame (78%)

A snack-based incarnation of the baby soya bean, served shucked and fresh. Brannavan wanted to give it extra credit for the versatility of the soya bean – tofu, tempeh, soya meat, soy milk, etc – but we assessed it solely on the merits of the tiny but flavourful bean directly in front of us.

3. Green bean (80.6%)

Served in two formats: Max’s salad and Brannavan’s presentation of them in – wait for it – black bean sauce. May have ranked so highly just because we were yearning for more fresh vegetables at this point. As Keith put it: “Crunchy, fresh, all the things that beans are not.”

2. Broad bean (81%)

This was presented as a fūl, a dish popular in Lebanon and Egypt, and spurred reminiscences about Levantine meals made with olive oil, tahini and lemon juice, not to mention a yearning to head down to Camel Grill for some of their freshly fried (broad bean) falafel. Although, in all honesty, had we eaten more beans at this point we might have exploded.

Easily deserving of its silver medal, the broad bean is the Kiwi gardener’s delicacy. (Photo: Getty)

1. Borlotti (81.3%)

Sweet, nutty and nice to look at: only after we had rendered these verdicts, and compiled our rankings, did we learn that the previous bean assessment had labelled this the worst bean. Different strokes, etc. Anyway: congratulations, Borlotti, you’re an excellent, full-bodied bean with a delightful coat and rich interior. Enjoy your victory.


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