Globetrotting goober

Globetrotting goober

Peanuts, as the name suggests, are closer to peas, or the legume family, rather than nuts. They taste like or feel like other nuts when roasted, but categorically, they are legumes. Taxonomically classified as Arachis hypogaea, it is also considered to be an oil crop because of its high oil content. The flowers of the plant have a strange habit of thrusting their stems into the earth to grow their fruit pods underground. That is why the other popular name for peanuts is groundnuts.  

Goober is another word for peanuts. It is a word often used in the southern United States, the major peanut-growing region in North America. Peanuts or groundnuts, as they are often called, are native to the continent of America, but they originally come not from the north, but from the south. One might easily think the peanut migrated from the south to the north, but that was not the case. The goober pea had an amazing globetrotting adventure, a zigzagging, continent-hopping journey, before landing in the southern United States. 

The plant, which is believed to be native to northwestern Argentina and southeastern Bolivia, first spread in the South American continent, particularly in Peru, moving eventually to Ecuador, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay. As a result of the discovery of the Americas and Columbus’s voyages, peanuts were among the first crops to be introduced to the Old World. 

With the start of the slave trade and ships constantly commuting between Africa and South America, the peanut first took root in West Africa. It became well adapted to the land and became a major source of nutrition as it contains high protein, fat and carbohydrate contents, making it a whole food source. It was consumed in many ways, mostly sand-roasted, fried or plain boiled. For Africans, they were similar to the native Bambara groundnut that could only be consumed boiled. So, boiling peanuts became a usual way to eat them. They were also added to stews, or pounded to thicken cooking juices of pot dishes. The peanut was satisfying and tasty, so naturally it became a West African favorite, of course spreading to East Africa. 

Eventually via Africa, the peanut landed in North America, of course to the southern states where farming dependent on slave labor was flourishing. That is why an unusual name like goober has become a local word for the plant, which actually originates from the Bantu languages and is akin to the word n-guba, the word given to “peanut” in the Kongo and Kimbundu languages. 

In the southern states, just as in Africa, boiling peanuts became a traditional habit during harvest time. Later in hard times, it was also a sustenance food. The folk song Goober Peas was popular with Confederate soldiers of the southern United States during the American Civil War, an obvious sign it had been the sole pleasurable food they had. 

Peas, peas, peas, peas
Eating goober peas
Goodness, how delicious,
Eating goober peas. 

The globetrotting journey of the peanut was not limited to the traffic between Africa and America. The Portuguese introduced it to Asian countries, where it was much welcomed. It became an important oil source in India, is much favored in Malaysian and Indonesian cooking and in China, apart from being used in stir-fry, it is deep fried as a much-loved snack. Since one cannot stop nibbling on peanuts like a monkey, it is sometimes also called a monkey nut. As its geography expanded, many peanut landraces evolved, resulting in today’s six main groups. Now, peanuts range from small tiny pea-sized ones to quite big lima-bean sized ones. 

The definite time when it was first cultivated in Turkey is unclear. In Ottoman times, the first attempts to grow peanuts dates back to 1827, when it was brought from Tripoli in Libya, and experimentally grown in Agriculture School in Thessaloniki and Pınar farm close to Thessaloniki. In 1908, the plant was included in the experimental garden at Istanbul Halkalı Agriculture School. As the plant favors hot climatic conditions, its cultivation had to be in warmer regions. The first cultivation attempts on a large scale began with the establishment of the Republic of Turkey in the 1920s.

When tracing the history of peanuts in Turkey, I have noticed the strange habit of boiling peanuts in some villages close to the provinces of Antalya and Mersin, major agricultural regions in coastal Mediterranean Turkey. This practice is never seen in other parts of Turkey; peanuts are always enjoyed roasted as snacks. 

Suspecting an African connection, I looked at the demographic changes in the villages, only to discover the origins of peanut-boiling communities do have an African connection. There has never been large scale extensive farming in the Ottoman period, but in the later periods, larger farms in Mersin, Antalya, and the Dalaman region are known for using African work forces, easily reaching the Mediterranean coasts of Anatolia from North Africa with trade ships coming from the port of Alexandria. 

It was not institutionalized slavery, but communities of Black Africans lived in those regions working on farms, and of course remained there, becoming Turkish citizens when Turkey was declared a republic. Today, the Osmaniye province, tucked between the Mediterranean and southeastern Turkey, claims to be the peanut capital of Turkey, having also received a geographical appellation of origin for their now localized peanut. 

Now that the peanut harvest season is about to end, it might be the right time to enjoy fresh nuts, either plain boiled or maybe deep-fried. Anyway, it is definitely fun to nibble on. No wonder it has gained world-wide popularity. 

Fork of the Week:

Boiled peanuts resemble boiled beans or chestnuts, comforting with their starchy feel and satisfying with their fatty taste. The sweetness of the fresh nut contrasts with the saltiness of the boiling water, making it quite addictive. It is best to use freshly harvested peanuts, preferably in their semi-mature raw state. 

Completely dried peanuts will not work; soaking them overnight may help moisten them or better preserve them for deep-frying. Try to find newly harvested peanuts in shells, cover with plenty of heavily salted water, or even sea water if close to clean sea water, bring to a boil, and simmer until tender. The cooking time depends on the variety and freshness of the nuts. It can take a few hours. The more it is cooked, the tenderer it is, but some folks prefer it semi-raw and a bit alive. You may add spices, such as Cajun for it to be authentic American, or star anise and ginger to make it Asian. 

Fresh peanuts that are still in their shells are also fried, but I prefer to shell them and shallow fry them in moderately hot oil for about 15-20 minutes, preferable groundnut oil, and season with sea salt, or toss with a generous sprinkling of soy sauce. Enjoy the peanuts both ways, celebrating their globetrotting journey conquering global palates! 

Cork of the Week: 

With boiled peanuts, it has to be your regular beer, but for fried peanuts, it must be whisky. Nowadays, my regular sip is Teeling from Ireland, from Dublin to be precise. Either Single Grain or Single Malt will be perfect with your fried nibbles, the latter may be with a soy tossed one.

Aylin Öney Tan,