The bean that carries a whiff of rain

A common kitchen ingredient, the black-eyed bean has a glorious lineage and, when boiled, a shockingly intense umami flavour  

Published : Apr 16, 2024 12:14 IST - 5 MINS READ

A bean is a seed, an egg on pause.

A bean is a seed, an egg on pause. | Photo Credit: Getty Images/ iStock

Someone needs to speak up for food. For the silent staples that are snubbed and slighted yet consumed by the tonne. Their sojourn in the kitchen is swift and brutal. Drowned in primeval sludge, doused with toxic mordants, blistered in boiling oil, what chance do they have to speak their mind? Why bother—it’s just stuff that bulks the meal? Maybe so, but where’s the relish in that?

I thought I’ll explore the humbler ingredients we usually ignore, so I grabbed the nearest tin, tossed a fistful of beans into a crock, and left them to soak.

It was a kind, even generous gesture. I hadn’t expected to be stared out of countenance: across the film of water, hundreds of black eyes trained reproach at me.

Black-eyed beans! Chowli. Payir. Lobiya. Karamani. Lubya. Cowpea is the umbrella term for Vigna unguiculata big or small, red, white, brown or black. Call them what you will, there was distinct defiance in their stare. I almost heard them snarl, ‘Predator!’

 This morning, eight hours later, the beans look like it’s been a wild night. Some have unbuttoned their jackets for air. Others have shed them altogether. Seamless and sheer, those abandoned vestments float free, Lilliputian haute couture, 2024.

 The water in the bowl is frothy and smells tired. I get rid of it, and rinse out the beans. Refreshed, they jostle in the sunlit crock, trusting and tousled, miniscule Timothée Chalamets yearning to be men. What has so taken the bite out of them?

A bean is a seed, an egg on pause. It keeps predators, like me, at bay with a bunch of dangerous chemicals buttoned within its natty jacket. Cooked unsoaked and eaten, it is all bloat, belch and bombard. But a stint at the spa changes all. The bean unzips and loses toxins in the bath water, drops its grudge against the world to emerge from the shower a kindlier legume. Détente established, chowli now is ready for a sauna. Into the cooker with the beans. Will water heat and pressure melt their stony hearts into the (digestible) stuff of immortality?

Within the minute the house stirs with a not-so-morning scent. The top note in karamani’s steam is definitely not beany.

Beany is green, sweet, confiding, all lisp and wheedle until its astringency bites like malice. This is the scent of clay. Why does it carry a remembrance of rain?

Petrichor. The itr parched earth exhales with the first cool spray of water. The scent of lobiya is close, but not quite as ephemeral as petrichor.

This aroma doesn’t belong in the kitchen. It is the accord of some magnificent perfume, too indiscreet to be stoppered in a bottle. Past the floral courtesies, the your-place-or-mine wrangle of spices quickly dismissed, its heart note sings out the moment of truth, a cruel pelvic surge of memory and desire.

Impatient for a taste, I open the cooker.

The beans are benthic, barely visible. I shake the pan and they swim up, plumply indolent, and nod past me in casual shoals. The water is very cloudy, the colour of crude amethyst. I ladle some into a cup and sip.

Just water, right? No way. This is a mouthful of liquid silk. Despite my recent breakfast, I feel a stir of appetite. Flavourless, tasteless, very nearly odourless, and yet quite simply—delectable. It is the soul of Vigna unguiculata, the meaning of the bean. Its sensual caress is umami, the signature of glutamate, the molecule which whispers luxury to the brain. Who would have thought Vigna such a sophisticate?

Harappans’ favourite

Chowli’s wilder ancestors were domesticated in Africa well before 3,000 BCE. It’s been found in the dust of pyramids. Egyptian priests were forbidden to eat cowpeas, lest they offend divinity with a fart or two. By 495 BCE, Greeks across the Mediterranean babbled enthusiastically about the fresh green pod they called lobio. A century later, Athenaeus, who made a cult of fine dining, dismissed the bean as a dessert fit for beggars.Meanwhile, at home, the Harappans were growing Vigna by 2,200 BCE, and we haven’t stopped eating it since.

Heaven in a spoon

My beans have stopped exhaling now. I sample one. It unravels on the tongue, a clot of scented cream, smooth, unsalted, shockingly intense in umami for such negligible heft.

Nutrition? Resistant starch, a good whack of protein, a trace of fat, a fair sprinkling of minerals and vitamins.

 Immortality in a bean!

 We aren’t halfway through its story but the bean clamours for adventure. It’s still a long way to lunch, but I could use a spot of culinary revenge.

 A ladle full of cowpeas, broth and all, will suffice—but since you’re joining me, I’ll make that two.

Different varieties of cowpea and snake beans on display at a retail outlet in Thrissur, Kerala.

Different varieties of cowpea and snake beans on display at a retail outlet in Thrissur, Kerala. | Photo Credit: K.K. MUSTAFAH

Into the skillet they go in a shimmer of heat. Just as the beans begin to bloom, I shower them with a golden drift of jaggery and leave them to chat as I start the coffee. The nutty, malty aroma draws me back just in time to sprinkle the veriest pinch of cardamom and mace. A drop of ghee, a dusting of coconut, and the luscious beans meld into a delectable caramel.

Coffee, cowpea, caramel—why cowpea?

Oh, the plant makes great fodder for cattle.

And Vigna is for Italian botanist Domenico Vigna (1577-1647).

Pull up a chair.

Here’s a bit of heaven in your spoon.


Kalpana Swaminathan and Ishrat Syed are surgeons who write together as Kalpish Ratna. They are the authors of Gastronama: The Indian Guide to Eating Right (Roli, 2023).

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