I posted a photo of a beet on my facebook page the other day. A friend asked, “what is that and what does it taste like?” My reply was, “it’s a beet and it tastes like a beet.” I love simplicity. Many believe that the name tepary comes from the Tohono O’odham phrase t’pawi meaning”it’s a bean”.
I first learned about tepary beans from my food hero, Gary Nabhan. In Coming Home to Eat, Gary touted the ability of tepary beans to grow in an arid climate and their high protein juxtaposed a low glycemic index. Apparently, long ago they were grown by many of the Native American desert communities.
Tohono O’Odham translates as ‘people of the desert’ but this tribe was formerly known as the Papago, from the Spanish word Papabotas or bean eaters. They’re closely related to the Pima tribe, also known as the Akimel O’Odham, who hold the unenviable distinction of having the highest rate of diabetes in the world. Recent research reveals that more than 50% of all tribal members over the age of 35 are diabetic.
These tribes aren’t large. The 1990 census counted less than 32,000 members between them. But because of their high rate of diabetes, they have an importance far greater than their numbers would indicate.
Each benefits from the work of Native Seeds/SEARCH. The acronym stands for Southwest Endangered Arid-Lands Resources Clearinghouse. Gary Nabhan and Mahina Drees, founded this non-profit in 1973. They sent staff to remote corners of the desert, on foot and on mule, to recover seeds. One of those seeds was the tepary bean.
Native Seeds/SEARCH discovered that many of the Native American desert communities had lost their traditional methods of farming and their seed stock. They heard from the Tohono O’Odham that they would like to grow the crops of their ancestors. Since then, Native Seeds/SEARCH has become a major regional seed bank and a leader in the heirloom seed movement. Its seed bank includes 1,800 collections, many of them rare or endangered. More than 90 percent of these crop varieties are not being systematically preserved elsewhere.
The tepary beans are Native Seeds best seller but their current supply is only 41 bushels. That’s far fewer than the 150,000 bushels grown in California alone in 1917. These beans may be making a comeback in the diet of the peoples of the desert. They have in my home and I was particulary happy to see them on the menu of a new downtown hotel in my area. If they do come back, it will be largely because of the work of the dedicated people at Native Seeds/SEARCH. The organization’s Desert Foods for Diabetes project promotes the production and consumption of traditional desert foods to combat diabetes.
Teparies have a wonderful nutty taste that I enjoy. Even after soaking, they take longer to cook than other beans sometimes resulting in what my kids call, “the crunchy beans”. I love to fix them with traditional Mexican spices of cumin, garlic and Mexican oregano. Be forewarned, however, that these beans are tiny and come with a lot of pebbles and dirt. You need to wash them with a couple of changes of water to clean them up before cooking. Clearly tepary beans aren’t local to everyone so please feel free to modify this recipe with your favorite.
Tepary Bean Hummus
adapted from Quiessence Restaurant
served during Super Bowl
2 cups Tepary Beans (soaked overnight, rinsed and cooked in salted water until tender)
4 oz olive oil
2Tbs lemon juice
4 cloves roasted garlic (I roast a head in a terracotta roaster)
pinch of cumin
salt and ground pepper to taste
In a food processor, puree the beans, and garlic. Slowly add the 0live oil. When the desired consistency is reached, add the lemon juice, cumin and season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve with an assortment of chopped vegetables or pita chips.