Beans Around the World

BeanCollageFrom the red beans and rice of New Orleans to the cassoulets of Southwest France, dry beans are a wonderful staple enjoyed across the globe. Examining the types of beans grown in different parts of the world and tasting the various dishes they create provides a delicious culinary adventure and is a way to understand the traditions and history of a place and the people who live there.

Legumes (which includes beans, peas and lentils) are one of the most ancient human foods. They have been a staple of the diet in many parts of the world since the days of hunter-gatherers, about 12,000 years ago.

We often think of beans as a peasant food, but in times of human history, they have been considered to possess great powers and have been seen as a symbol of high status. Harold McGee in On Food and Cooking says, “As remarkable and as yet unexplained sign of their status in the ancient world is the fact that each of the four major legumes known to Rome lent its name to a prominent Roman family: Fabius comes from fava bean, Lentulus from the lentil, Piso from the pea, and Cicero from the chickpea.”

Today, the United States is the global leader in dry bean production. Each year, U.S. farmers plant from 1.5 to 1.7 million acres of dry edible beans.[1]

Depending on where you live, you will likely find several, if not dozens, of different varieties of dry beans in your local grocery store. There are hundreds of varieties of dry beans and each has its own unique flavor, texture, cooking time and culinary uses. Here are some beans from around the world including their country of origin and characteristics.

Bean Varieties[2]

  • Adzuki: Himalayan native, now grown throughout Asia. Small, nearly round red bean with a thread of white along part of the seam. Slightly sweet and starchy.
  • Anasazi: New World native (present-day junction of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah). It is a white speckled bean with burgundy to rust-brown. Slightly sweet.
  • Appaloosa: New World native. Slightly elongated, curved, one end white and the other end mottled with black and brown. Holds it shape well. Slightly herbaceous and piney in flavor.
  • Black Bean: New World native. Shiny, true black uncooked. Creamy texture when cooked. Flavor has an unusual, faintly sweet note, reminiscent of chocolate.
  • Cannellini/White Kidney Bean: New World (Argentina) native, now much loved and used in Italy. Creamy texture, slightly nutty.
  • Cranberry: New World (Colombia) native. Ivory or tan, beautifully mottled with striations of red, burgundy, even bright pink. A melty, creamy texture, a little nutlike.
  • Great Northern: New World native. A white bean, slightly larger than the navy, meltingly textured.
  • Kidney Bean: New World native. Kidney shaped, shiny dark-red seed coat. Cooks up creamy, with a little sweetness. Mild in flavor.
  • Mung: India/Pakistan native. Small, almost round, green with a small white stripe along part of its seam. Mild and starchy.
  • Navy: New World native. Smaller white bean. Soft but not creamily so. A pleasant neutral flavor.
  • Pinto: New World native. Pink-puff bean mottled with a deeper brown-burgundy. It cooks up plump, creamy, a little sweet, mild.

These bean varieties, and hundreds of others, have been used to create extraordinary dishes that represent a place in the world: locally grown ingredients and traditional flavor that truly give a taste of a place.

Various regions of the world are home to some of the most delicious bean dishes. Travel to Tuscany and try Ribollita, a hearty, broth-based soup similar to minestrone with the addition of stale, day-old bread to thicken the consistency. In Mexico, beans take center stage in Frijoles Refritos (Refried Beans), a classic dish featuring cooked, mashed pinto beans made with pork lard and onion. According to Mexican food authority Diana Kennedy, “mashed and fried beans can appear on a Mexican table three times a day: with breakfast eggs, as the main meat course at midday, and with evening tacos.” Pinto beans are the most commonly eaten bean in northern Mexico, while black beans are more common in southern Mexico.  And in Asian kitchens, you can find Rajmah, red kidney beans cooked with garlic, ginger, tomato sauce, and spices like cumin seed, turmeric, coriander, garam masala, and asafoetida powder.

To begin your exploration of beans around the world, you don’t have to travel far. Simply visit The World Bean Kitchen: Passport to Flavor, a website supported by the Northarvest Bean Growers sharing global bean recipes and culinary insights from chefs at the Culinary Institute of America.  Also, be sure to read our interview with Mary Lee Chin for more insights into Beans in Asian Cuisines, and check out our March Fast Facts article to learn about other delicious global dishes.

Happy Cooking and Bean Appetite!

[1] Production Facts. (n.d.). Retrieved March 06, 2017, from http://www.usdrybeans.com/industry/production-facts/  

[2] Dragonwagon, C. (2011). Bean by Bean – A Cookbook. More than 175 Recipes from Fresh Beans, Dried Beans, Cool Beans, Hot Beans, Savory Beans, Even Sweet Beans! New York: Workman Pub.